Start Up No.1817: renewables bail out Texas grid, pricey city life, working in ‘oil slicks’, the (small) joy of premium economy, and more

With Apple joining Amazon in offering live sports, how soon before other streaming services pile in to distinguish themselves? CC-licensed photo by YoTuTYoTuT on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Really very summer-y. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Wind and solar power are ‘bailing out’ Texas amid record heat and energy demand • CNN

Ella Nilsen, CNN:


unlike previous extreme weather events in Texas which led to deadly blackouts, the grid is holding up remarkably well this week. Several experts told CNN that it’s owed in large part to strong performances from wind and solar, which generated 27 gigawatts of electricity during Sunday’s peak demand — close to 40% of the total needed.

“Texas is, by rhetoric, anti-renewables. But frankly, renewables are bailing us out,” said Michael Webber, an energy expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re rocking. That really spares us a lot of heartache and a lot of money.”

Despite the Texas Republican rhetoric that wind and solar are unreliable, Texas has a massive and growing fleet of renewables. Zero-carbon electricity sources (wind, solar, and nuclear) powered about 38% of the state’s power in 2021, rivaling natural gas at 42%.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon for the state. “Wind and solar would not have been available in years in the past, so the growing capacity helps to alleviate reliance on natural gas and coal,” said Jonathan DeVilbiss, operations research analyst at the US Energy Information Administration.

Not only have renewables helped keep the power on during a scorching and early heatwave, they have also helped keep costs low. Prices for natural gas and coal are high amid a worldwide energy crunch, but renewables – powered by the wind and sun – have no fuel cost.

“Because the price of wind and sunlight hasn’t doubled in the past year like other resources, they are acting as a hedge against high fuel prices,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at UT Austin.


Maybe the Republicans can ignore their prejudices about climate change and just look at the market price.
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Real-time electricity tracker • International Energy Agency


The IEA real-time electricity map displays electricity demand, generation and spot prices from more than 50 sources. Data is available historically, as well as daily or hourly, and at country or regional levels. Explore the map to discover visuals and analysis.


Really interesting – such as that Ukraine’s electricity production has stalled dramatically, mostly from nuclear but also from coal. And many more, as they say.
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Why city life has gotten way more expensive • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:


As long as money was cheap and Silicon Valley told itself the next world-conquering consumer-tech firm was one funding round away, the best way for a start-up to make money from venture capitalists was to lose money acquiring a gazillion customers.

I call this arrangement the Millennial Consumer Subsidy. Now the subsidy is ending. Rising interest rates turned off the spigot for money-losing start-ups, which, combined with energy inflation and rising wages for low-income workers, has forced Uber, Lyft, and all the rest to make their services more expensive. Meanwhile, global supply chains haven’t been able to keep up with domestic consumer demand, which means delivery times for major items like furniture and kitchen equipment have bloomed from “three to five days” to “sometime between this fall and the heat death of the universe.” That means higher prices, higher margins, fewer discounts, and longer wait times for a microgeneration of yuppies used to low prices and instant deliveries. The golden age of bougie on-demand urban-tech discounting has come to a close.

I should underscore that the old ways were made possible by an era of lower demand and weaker labor markets, which was not a winning combination for most workers. Many people drove an Uber or delivered Thai food because they didn’t have competing job offers that would clearly pay more per week. Today, job openings are historically plentiful and nominal wages are rising fastest for low-income workers. That virtuous adjustment has shown up in higher Uber and DoorDash prices.

This isn’t the end of the story. With inflation raging, the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates several more times in the next six months, and could tip the U.S. economy into a recession. If that happens, oil prices will likely fall and rising unemployment could put more Uber drivers back on the road. At that point, ride-share prices would fall again.

But the heavily discounted prices of the 2010s aren’t coming back. The Millennial Consumer Subsidy is over, and for the foreseeable future, metro residents will have to go about living the old-fashioned way: by paying what things actually cost.


But “what things actually cost” is going to be a lot more than people paid for them before. Dramatically more. The stress on American family budgets in particular is going to be dramatic.
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The oil slick effect, or why we systematically overgeneralise • Tim Harford

The aforementioned Harford:


In the 1970s, the psychologist Barry Staw gave a collaborative task to groups of strangers, inviting them to analyse some corporate data and make predictions about the company’s future earnings and sales. When the task was complete, he told each participant how well their group’s forecasts had worked out. Then he asked these individuals to evaluate the group they’d been working with.

But Staw was telling a white lie: he gave each group’s forecast a good or bad rating purely at random. There was no connection between how well the group did and how well Staw told them they’d done. Nevertheless, Staw found that when people believed their group had made an accurate forecast, they told him that they’d been working with open-minded, motivated, clear, intelligent and collegiate people.

But when they were falsely told that their group had made poor predictions, they explained to Staw that this was no surprise, as the group was narrow-minded, lazy, abstruse, foolish and mutually antagonistic.

Subsequent researchers found the same pattern, even when they repeated the experiment with well-established teams. As Phil Rosenzweig explains in his book The Halo Effect, this behaviour is not confined to colleagues. We have a systematic tendency to overgeneralise both praise and blame. Profitable companies are presumed to have superior policies and procedures across the board. This halo effect operates in reverse, too: scandal-struck politicians see their opinion poll ratings fall on every issue, from economic competence to foreign policy. Apparently we struggle to acknowledge that something can be good in some ways and bad in others, whether that thing is a president, a corporation or our own teammates.

The reverse halo effect is sometimes called the “devil effect” or the “horn effect”. Neither term has quite caught on. So let me offer another: the oil slick effect. Disagreements, like oil slicks, seem to spread much further and more ruinously than we would think. It’s not possible for somebody simply to be wrong about something; they must be wrong about everything, and wicked, too. The oil slick covers everything and ruins everything.

I can’t help but wonder if this oil slick effect is worse than it used to be.


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Apple and MLS to present all MLS matches for 10 years, beginning in 2023 • Apple

Apple PR:


Apple and Major League Soccer (MLS) today announced that the Apple TV app will be the exclusive destination to watch every single live MLS match beginning in 2023. This partnership is a historic first for a major professional sports league, and will allow fans around the world to watch all MLS, Leagues Cup,1 and select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches in one place — without any local broadcast blackouts or the need for a traditional pay TV bundle.

From early 2023 through 2032, fans can get every live MLS match by subscribing to a new MLS streaming service, available exclusively through the Apple TV app.


Wow, every Major League Soccer match!


Every… what? Ah, it’s a 28-team league in the US (and, eh, Canada). How thrilling. Hope the MLS is paying Apple well for this, right? Sky used to broadcast two matches per week in the UK and Ireland from 2015 to 2019. This is for $2.5bn, and might pick up some viewers at the margin.

Live sports are the next frontier for streaming services, though.
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Samsung suppliers reportedly suffer cutback in orders • Digitimes

Amy Fan and Ines Lin:


Korean media Ddaily cited industry sources as saying that Samsung’s system LSI division is mulling scaling down or even terminating its contract with UMC in producing image sensors.

To mitigate the impact of chip shortages, Samsung around 2021 increased its outsourcing of chip manufacturing and has reportedly commissioned UMC to produce image sensors. However, terminal demand has waned, and the supply chain is struggling amid multiple variables, including the fallout of previous lockdowns in China.

It is said Samsung is reinspecting its smartphone business, while its shipments through 2022 may drop to 270-280 million units. Rumor has it that Samsung cannot but cut back orders to prevent its inventory of phone components from getting higher following a series of controversies, including its use of game optimization service to limit app functions.

Samsung is reportedly cutting back orders given to suppliers and even external chipmakers. It might have revised down the production goal of its Galaxy A model. To lower production costs, it has also commissioned more work to China’s ODMs and JDMs, Korean industry observers indicated.


Apple’s next financial results aren’t until July. Wonder if it will give any hints about the circumstances (which are surely affecting it too) before then.
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Meet the fact-checkers decoding Sri Lanka’s meltdown – Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:


[Yudhanjaya] Wijeratne, 29 years old, is best known as the author of Numbercaste, a science fiction novel about a near-future world where people’s importance in society is decided based on the all-powerful Number, a credit score determined by their social circle and social network data. But he is also the chief executive of Watchdog, a research collective based in Colombo that uses fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT) methods to investigate Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis. As part of its work, he and his 12-member team of coders, journalists, economists, and students track, time stamp, geolocate, and document videos of protests shared online.

Watchdog’s protest tracker has emerged as the most comprehensive online archive of the historic events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Its data set, which comprises 597 different protests and 49 conflicts, has been used by global news organizations to demonstrate the extent of public pushback.

“[Our] core mission is simple,” Wijeratne told Rest of World. “We want to help people understand the infrastructure they use. The concrete, the laws, the policies, and the social contracts that they live under. We want to help people understand the causality of how they came to be and how they operate.”

In May, Rest of World visited Watchdog to see how the group, operating under the shadow of a regime notorious for distorting the truth, aims to uncover the reality of Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis.


Easy to forget that Colombo has been the site of violence and suicide bombings in the past few years, with a government keen to suppress information. OSINT becomes an essential toolkit for citizenship.
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Puerto Ricans are powering their own rooftop solar boom • Canary Media

Maria Gallucci:


A rising number of Puerto Ricans are installing solar panels and batteries on their homes and businesses, fed up with the unstable electric grid, high electricity bills and the state-owned utility’s reliance on fossil fuels. As of January 2022, some 42,000 rooftop solar systems were enrolled in the island’s net-metering program — more than eight times the number at the end of 2016, the year before Hurricane Maria struck the island, according to utility data. Thousands more systems are operating but are not officially counted because, like the center’s unit, they aren’t connected to the grid.

Spearheaded largely by residents, business owners and philanthropies, the grassroots solar movement sweeping the island is happening despite headwinds from the territory’s centralized utility — which claims it’s working to advance the island’s clean energy goals but continues investing in fossil fuels. Solar proponents say that, for the technology to reach most of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people, the government and its utility will need to more fully participate in what has largely been a bottom-up energy transformation. With billions of federal recovery dollars set to flow to Puerto Rico, they argue that now is the time for public policies and investments that shift the island away from an outdated model of large, far-flung power plants to one that supplies clean electricity close to where people need it.

The vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s centralized system became painfully evident in September 2017, when the island was hit by two consecutive disasters. 

Hurricane Irma narrowly skirted the island on September 7, leaving more than a third of all households without power. Many residents still didn’t have electricity when, on September 20, Hurricane Maria barreled ashore. The storm carved a diagonal 100-mile path from southeast to northwest, mowing down the island’s transmission lines and inundating infrastructure. Maria damaged, destroyed or otherwise compromised 80% of the island’s grid.

Without electricity, daily life ground to a halt.


Simple lesson: microgeneration and local storage trumps reliance on central sourcing if the central sourcing is in the least bit vulnerable.
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Why you’re so tempted by the premium-economy upgrade • The Atlantic

Mac Schwerin:


premium economy wasn’t built to entice strivers across flight-class lines; carriers originally designed it to catch the bruised egos of former business-class members when the corporate world began to earnestly self-audit and downgrade employee travel budgets. A recent report by Jay Sorensen, an industry consultant, noted that “the apparent discovery of a new type of upscale leisure traveler” is a welcome surprise for these airlines. It connoted a small miracle: Airlines had once again wrung a new social class from flying, as they had done with first and business class. And they were able to do it, in part, because of a phenomenon called “pain of payment.”

According to [University of Miami marketing professor Uzma] Khan, people often experience “actual, physical pain” upon paying for something. But humans can have short memories. If airlines create enough distance between the initial ticket purchase and the option to upgrade, passengers are more likely to think of the latter as a stand-alone cost. “A lot of upgrades happen because now you’re either at the airport, or you’re checking in, and they give you an option. You don’t even remember exactly how much you paid for your flight when you were booking it, so that pain is gone,” Khan said. Basically, you don’t consider the total amount because you’ve already internalized the initial amount.

At the point of travel, an extra $45 or so to improve a short-haul flight—however modestly—doesn’t seem so decadent, especially when the threat of suffering through basic economy looms.

…There is, of course, another prevailing opinion about premium economy, which is that it’s simply a ham-fisted attempt to get passengers to pay more for a negligibly better experience. This attitude puts the pomp and puffery of premium economy into sharp relief. A seat upgrade, after all, does not get you to your destination any more quickly or safely.

Research bears that line of thinking out to an extent. Khan mentioned several studies that were conducted to determine the extent to which space colored the overall experience for passengers. An aircraft manufacturer brought in focus groups to try different seat configurations on its prototype, sometimes offering more legroom, sometimes more elbow room. “It had zero impact on customer satisfaction,” Khan said. “Where people do feel the difference is if you give them four more inches at the eye level. Because the perception of space is what matters.”


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AI trained on 4Chan becomes ‘hate speech machine’ • Vice

Matthew Gault:


AI researcher and YouTuber Yannic Kilcher trained an AI using 3.3 million threads from 4chan’s infamously toxic Politically Incorrect /pol/ board. He then unleashed the bot back onto 4chan with predictable results—the AI was just as vile as the posts it was trained on, spouting racial slurs and engaging with antisemitic threads. After Kilcher posted his video and a copy of the program to Hugging Face, a kind of GitHub for AI, ethicists and researchers in the AI field expressed concern.

The bot, which Kilcher called GPT-4chan, “the most horrible model on the internet”—a reference to GPT-3, a language model developed by Open AI that uses deep learning to produce text—was shockingly effective and replicated the tone and feel of 4chan posts. “The model was good in a terrible sense,” Klicher said in a video about the project. “It perfectly encapsulated the mix of offensiveness, nihilism, trolling, and deep distrust of any information whatsoever that permeates most posts on /pol.”

According to Kilcher’s video, he activated nine instances of the bot and allowed them to post for 24 hours on /pol/. In that time, the bots posted around 15,000 times. This was “more than 10% of all posts made on the politically incorrect board that day,” Kilcher said in his video about the project.


Seems nobody questioned whether it was sentient. Does that mean they thought it was, or wasn’t? And while we’re tidying this up, the Google researcher who was put on administrative leave is on Twitter, and.. oh dear.
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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

1 thought on “Start Up No.1817: renewables bail out Texas grid, pricey city life, working in ‘oil slicks’, the (small) joy of premium economy, and more

  1. Although if it’s a 16 hour flight, I’ll pay for the extra legroom.

    The MLS deal makes sense when you think about where the World Cup is going to be in 2026. If it’s like last time it was here, there will be a lot of MLS exhibit games with foreign teams, which will expand Apple’s TV reach in the global marketplace when the global audience goes football mad (they also struck a deal that if you’re a season ticket holder for an MLS team, you get to watch all your team’s games for free, which you currently have to pay for). So although frankly the MLS games aren’t as good as say, the UK league games, with this investment this might change. (What they should have done though was invest in the women’s league, partly as most of those teams actually play better than the men and it’s still a rapidly growing market).

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