Start Up No.1811: is Alexa charging you to pray?, crypto’s effective critic, Apple’s VR headset looks close, and more

When do you think we’ll reach our peak use of agricultural land – in five years, 10 or 20? Or could the story be more complicated? CC-licensed photo by Ian SaneIan Sane on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Out of office yet? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Alexa, why have you charged me £2 to say the Hail Mary? • The Guardian

Patrick Collinson:


When my 87-year-old mother, Patricia Collinson, was given an Alexa speaker by my sister, she was delighted to find she could ask it to say the Hail Mary. Every morning for a week the devout Catholic asked Alexa to recite the prayer.

What she was less delighted to learn was that she had unwittingly ordered a premium subscription payable through Amazon to a private company called Catholic Prayers.

Patricia, a retired district nurse in Hastings, does not own a computer, and does not know how to use one. She had signed up by voice command, without being presented with the kind of outline or terms and conditions that now comes as standard when you pay for things online.

Her experience throws a spotlight on a relatively new phenomenon, Alexa “skills”. Launched in the UK in 2016, these are the voice service’s version of apps. There are 45,000 in the UK, which range from security offerings (such as enabling your Alexa to hear breaking glass or a smoke alarm) through to recipe ideas and even “send a hug” services.

Although they are usually free to order verbally over Amazon’s Alexa, many also encourage in-app purchases – which can be made simply by saying “yes”.

Patricia says that at no point did she understand she was making a purchase or entering into a subscription.

“I got into the habit most mornings of coming downstairs, sitting in my recliner and saying: ‘Good morning, Alexa. Can you say the Hail Mary please,’” she says.

“It never asked for money. It never said it was charging me. It was completely news to me.”

The Alexa was set up by my sister, Catherine, and is attached to her Amazon account. She spotted an unusual email from the retailer, which said: “Order confirmation. Your payment has been processed and your subscription term has started.”


I saw this story in the paper and it stopped me cold. This is a very weird outgrowth of Alexa “skills”. Skilled at emptying your pocket?
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After millennia of agricultural expansion, the world has passed ‘peak agricultural land’ • Our World in Data

Hannah Ritchie:


Agricultural land is the total of arable land that is used to grow crops, and pasture used to raise livestock.

Measuring exactly how much land we use for agriculture is difficult. If all farms were simply rows of densely-planted crops it would be straightforward to calculate how much land is being used. Just draw a square around the field and calculate its area. But across much of the world, this is not how farming looks: it’s often low-density; mixed in with rural villages; in tiny smallholdings that are somewhere between a garden and a farm. Where farmland starts and ends is not always clear-cut.

As a result, there are a range of estimates for how much land is used for agriculture. 

Here I have brought together the three leading analyses on the change in global land use – these are shown in the visualization [with the article]. Each uses a different methodology, as explained in the chart. The UN FAO produces the bedrock data for each of these analyses from 1961 onwards; however, the researchers apply their own methodologies on top, and extend this series further back in time.

As you can see, they disagree on how much land is used for agriculture, and the time at which land use peaked. But they do all agree that we have passed the peak. 

This marks a historic moment in humanity’s relationship to the planet; a crucial step in its protection of the world’s ecosystems.

It shows that the future of food production does not need to follow the destructive path that it did in the past. If we continue on this path we will be able to restore space for the planet’s wilderness and wildlife.


Do hope someone tells the Amazon rainforest, or more usefully Brazil’s politicians. The “peak” seems to have been some time around 1990-2000, which is a surprise.
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Molly White is becoming the crypto world’s biggest critic • The Washington Post

Gerrit De Vynck:


A 28-year-old software engineer who writes Wikipedia articles for fun, White is an odd figure to make the crypto industry cower. On her website, “Web3 is Going Just Great,” White documents case after case of crypto malfeasance: investments that turn out to be scams, poorly-run projects that collapse under mismanagement and hacks that drain supporters’ money.

As much of the financial and tech elite has rallied around crypto, White has led a small but scrappy group of skeptics pushing the other way whose warnings have seemed vindicated by the cratering in recent weeks of cryptocurrency prices.

“Most of my disdain is reserved for the big players who are marketing this to a mainstream audience as though it’s an investment, often promising to be a ticket out of a really tough financial spot for people who don’t have many options,” White said. “It’s very predatory.”

To White and her fellow critics, crypto company founders and the venture capitalists backing them are presiding over a massive, unregulated attempt to rid regular people of their money by exaggerating the potential of crypto technology. Years spent online, researching esoteric Internet cultures have made White a rare figure who can maneuver the technically complex, meme-filled world of crypto, translating it into digestible prose.

White works from her home in Massachusetts, which she shares with two cats and a 70-pound pandemic puppy. She sports a youthful uniform of jeans, sweaters and Converse sneakers and communicates with her fellow crypto skeptics through Zoom and Twitter direct messages. She’s declined several offers to speak at in-person conferences, citing the time commitment.

As more people begin to question cryptomania, White’s prominence has grown: Journalists call her to gut-check stories, and she has lectured for students at Stanford University and provided advice to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on potential crypto legislation.


The headline makes it sound slightly as though she’s just disdainful. In reality, she’s impartial in her approach to writing up these scams. Like many, she’s willing to listen to the claims that *this time* there’s a really good use for blockchain. But she’s also a little angry that people keep being ripped off.
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Misinformation and professional news on largely unmoderated platforms: the case of Telegram • Tandfonline

Aliaksandr Herasimenka et al:


To date, there is little research to measure the scale of misinformation and understand how it spreads on largely unmoderated platforms. Our analysis of 200,000 Telegram posts demonstrates that links to known sources of misleading information are shared more often than links to professional news content, but the former stays confined to relatively few channels. We conclude that, contrary to popular received wisdom, the audience for misinformation is not a general one, but a small and active community of users. Our study strengthens an empirical consensus regarding the spread of misinformation and expands it for the case of Telegram.


So the good news is it’s only a small audience for misinformation, but the bad news is that they’re active. It’s a nuanced study, though; worth reading if this is a topic you’re into.
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How a cheap component could help kill off combustion cars • Reuters via Yahoo

Nick Carey and Christina Amann:


The humble wire harness, a cheap component that bundles cables together, has become an unlikely scourge of the auto industry. Some predict it could hasten the downfall of combustion cars.

Supplies of the auto part were choked by the war in Ukraine, which is home to a significant chunk of the world’s production, with wire harnesses made there fitted in hundreds of thousands of new vehicles every year.

These low-tech and low-margin parts – made from wire, plastic and rubber with lots of low-cost manual labour – may not command the kudos of microchips and motors, yet cars can’t be built without them.

The supply crunch could accelerate the plans of some legacy auto firms to switch to a new generation of lighter, machine-made harnesses designed for electric vehicles, according to interviews with more than a dozen industry players and experts.

“This is just one more rationale for the industry to make the transition to electric quicker,” said Sam Fiorani, head of production forecasting firm AutoForecast Solutions.


Noble gases, wheat, now wire harnesses – is there anything Ukraine doesn’t make that the world doesn’t depend on?
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Apple’s RealityOS trademarked for deadline two days after WWDC • UploadVR

David Heaney:


Apple’s RealityOS has appeared in a trademark filing with a deadline two days after WWDC, Apple’s yearly developer conference.

The filing was spotted by Vox Media’s Parker Ortolani. The listed applicant is ‘Realityo Systems LLC’, a company with no other public presence. Apple has in the past used the shell company ‘Yosemite Research LLC’ to file macOS update names, 9to5Mac reports – and Realityo Systems LLC is registered at the same address.

The existence of realityOS, or rOS, was first reported by Bloomberg all the way back in 2017. In 2021 Bloomberg, The Information, and supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo released reports claiming Apple is preparing to release a premium headset for VR and AR with high resolution color passthrough. Recent notes from Kuo claim this headset will weigh significantly less than Meta’s Quest 2, feature dual 4K OLED microdisplays, and use a new chip with “similar computing power as the M1 for Mac”.

In January iOS Developer Rens Verhoeven spotted a new platform “” in the App Store app upload logs. Apple’s existing operating systems include iOS (, iPadOS, watchOS (, macOS, and tvOS.

In February, “award-winning git repository surgeon” Nicolás Álvarez spotted Apple committing code to its open source GitHub repository referencing ‘TARGET_FEATURE_REALITYOS’ and ‘realityOS_simulator’ – the latter likely a feature to allow developers without the headset to test building AR or VR applications. Álvarez said Apple quickly force-pushed the repo to try & hide the change, suggesting making this public was a mistake.


Growing amounts of noise, but no real clarity on what it will be like – unsurprisingly. Mark Gurman of Bloomberg said a few days ago that the headset had been demonstrated to the Apple board, but it still feels like now is not quite the time for this to go on sale. And Apple doesn’t do “developer kit”. Would it reveal a headset and then say “we’ll sell this next year”, as Google just did over its tablet? It did with the original Apple Watch, but that was going to consumers. Again, this doesn’t quite feel like the time for this product. Can’t explain why; just how the world feels.
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AGL’s coal implosion shows what a disorderly transition to clean energy looks like • The Guardian

Adam Morton:


The spectacular implosion at AGL Energy, Australia’s biggest corporate greenhouse gas polluter, has been years in the making and should have ramifications across Australia’s political and business classes.

The short story is that this is what a disorderly transition to a clean economy looks like – the kind that we have long been warned will happen if governments don’t plan for the future.

AGL had planned to “demerge” itself into two separate companies, with one taking responsibility for more than 4.5 million retail customers and the other its electricity generators – notably, its three ageing coal-fired power plants, the last of which isn’t due to shut until 2045.

The retail business should have a bright future. The coal plants don’t. The idea was to separate them to boost the former by separating it from the declining value of the latter. AGL management said the split would “unlock value for shareholders”.

The demerger was due to go to a shareholder vote next month, and needed 75% support to pass. AGL management has now conceded it has no chance of reaching that, having been stymied by the software billionaire and renewable energy investor Mike Cannon-Brookes, who earlier this month took control of 11.3% of its shares.

Cannon-Brookes wants the company to stay as one, shut its coal plants by 2030 and spend up big on renewable energy and energy storage, arguing it is the best way to keep electricity prices down for consumers while turning a profit. He successfully made the case to enough major shareholders that a demerger would be, in his words, a “terrible outcome for shareholders, communities and the climate”.


A different sort of shareholder activism: extremely rich men who are *pro*-climate, taking action against inactivism. More of this please.
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Why regulators can’t stop Clearview AI • Time

Billy Perrigo:


In addition to the $9.4m fine, the U.K. regulator ordered Clearview to delete all data it collected from UK residents. That would ensure its system could no longer identify a picture of a UK user.

But it is not clear whether Clearview will pay the fine, nor comply with that order.

“As long as there are no international agreements, there is no way of enforcing things like what the ICO is trying to do,” [senior fellow for trustworthy AI at Mozilla, Abeba] Birhane says. “This is a clear case where you need a transnational agreement.”

It wasn’t the first time Clearview has been reprimanded by regulators. In February, Italy’s data protection agency fined the company 20 million euros ($21 million) and ordered the company to delete data on Italian residents. Similar orders have been filed by other EU data protection agencies, including in France. The French and Italian agencies did not respond to questions about whether the company has complied.

In an interview with TIME, the UK privacy regulator John Edwards said Clearview had informed his office that it cannot comply with his order to delete UK residents’ data. In an emailed statement, Clearview’s CEO Hoan Ton-That indicated that this was because the company has no way of knowing where people in the photos live. “It is impossible to determine the residency of a citizen from just a public photo from the open internet,” he said. “For example, a group photo posted publicly on social media or in a newspaper might not even include the names of the people in the photo, let alone any information that can determine with any level of certainty if that person is a resident of a particular country.” In response to TIME’s questions about whether the same applied to the rulings by the French and Italian agencies, Clearview’s spokesperson pointed back to Ton-That’s statement.


Clearview make clear that they don’t think the UK’s rules apply to them, so I guess the ICO can go whistle. But when it’s done in the US, it does listen. Maybe the ICO’s powers need to be upped from fines to prison sentences, with the ability to apply for extradition. That might concentrate minds.
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Substack’s founders dive headfirst into the culture wars • Vanity Fair

Joe Pompeo:


By late April, after the print version of this story was put to bed, [“Welcome to Hell World” writer Luke] O’Neil had had enough—he emailed me a link to a post explaining why he was leaving Substack for the rival startup Ghost: “I cannot emphasize strongly enough how little I want to take part in never mind be the subject of one single more conversation about ‘free speech’ on platforms and cancel culture or whatever.” [Paul] Carr, [Substack cofounder Hamish] McKenzie’s former PandoDaily editor, shared a series of emails he exchanged with McKenzie last year after Carr discontinued his Substack. “I get the free speech argument but there has to be a line. Surely,” Carr wrote. “I think you’ve hit upon the dilemma that’s at the center of everything right now: anti-vaxxing, violent sedition, abortion, gun control, trans rights and of course tech. At what point does someone’s right to free speech outweigh another’s right to live without fearing for their lives? At what point do people like you and me have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable from violent bullies?”

In early January, I was on a Zoom with McKenzie asking him about these very issues. I pulled up Substack’s content guidelines and noted that they prohibit hate, threats, violence, criminal behavior, doxing, plagiarism, even pornography. They don’t say anything about misinformation and disinformation. If Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are at least trying to moderate such content on their platforms, why not Substack?

“Our content guidelines protect the platform at the extremes while providing a high bar for intervention but also give us the ability to intervene when it’s necessary. I’m not going to say any more than that,” McKenzie replied. (He told me Substack had taken the step of deactivating accounts but wouldn’t specify how many times.) “Facebook and Twitter and others who are taking a harder-line approach to content moderation are more obliged to, because they’re amplification machines, because of the design of their systems. They are giving you news feeds that are sorted by content that is highly engaging. It encourages the production of this divisive content. These are the world’s most powerful machines ever to encourage the spread of disinformation, and so the burden of action on them is higher.”


An interesting argument: if you’re not amplifying, is it OK? (I think it probably is: nobody’s pushing Substacks with content you don’t like on you, just as you don’t have to read every columnist in the newspaper. With Substack’s model, you don’t even pay the columnist you disagree with.)
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There is no such thing as ‘data’ • Financial Times

Benedict Evans, in typically provocative-but-right mood:


There is no such thing as “data”, it isn’t worth anything, and it doesn’t belong to you anyway.

Most obviously, data is not one thing, but innumerable different collections of information, each of them specific to a particular application, that can’t be used for anything else.

For instance, Siemens has wind turbine telemetry and Transport for London has ticket swipes, and those aren’t interchangeable. You can’t use the turbine telemetry to plan a new bus route, and if you gave both sets of data to Google or Tencent, that wouldn’t help them build a better image recognition system.

This might seem trivial put so bluntly, but it points to the uselessness of very common assertions on the lines of “China has more data” — more of what data? Meituan delivers 50mn restaurant orders a day, and that lets it build a more efficient routing algorithm, but you can’t use that for a missile guidance system. You can’t even use it to build restaurant delivery in London. “Data” does not exist — there are merely many sets of data.

Of course, when people talk about data they mostly mean “your” data — your information and the things that you do on the internet, some of which is sifted, aggregated and deployed by technology companies. We want more privacy controls, but we also think we should have ownership of that data, wherever it is.

The trouble is, most of the meaning in “your” data is not in you but in all of the interactions with other people. What you post on Instagram means very little: the signal is in who liked your posts and what else they liked, in what you liked and who else liked it, and in who follows you, who else they follow and who follows them, and so on outwards in a mesh of interactions between millions of people.


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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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