Start Up No.1854: bacteria to eat plastic, Ukraine’s 3D printer warriors, papal linkrot, Apple’s HR problem, and more


The sealed battery in many modern consumer products such as Apple Airpods makes them more attractive to use – but limits their lifespan. And how long is that? CC-licensed photo by Maurizio Pesce 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. Recharging. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Operational notes:
1: The Overspill is going on a two-week break. Back on Monday August 22.
2: The Social Warming Substack will (probably) continue publishing on the Fridays in between. Including today, if it gets finished.


Electronics are built with death dates. Let’s not keep them a secret • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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Here’s a dirty little secret of the tech industry: “Almost every device these days has a battery that’s going to wear out, and it’s a built-in death clock,” says Kyle Wiens, the CEO of repair community iFixit. Today, there are batteries in everything from your toothbrush to your vacuum cleaner. They are consumable products, like printer ink or tires.

But buying gear with batteries sealed inside is kind of like buying a car where you can’t change the tires. We just don’t realize we’re doing it, or how it’s contributing to our climate and sustainability crises.
Gadgets don’t consume as much energy as planes and cars, but the damage they cause comes from manufacturing and disposing them. Making new devices requires mining raw materials such as cobalt, often at great human cost. Disposing old gadgets is costly and is fuelling a rash of dangerous battery fires in trucks and recycling centres.

And according to Apple, of all the carbon emissions its products add to the earth over their life span, 70% comes just from manufacturing. That means every time you buy a new gadget like a laptop, you’re adding hundreds of more pounds of carbon into the sky before you even switch it on.

But even if you wanted buy long-lasting devices, it’s often impossible to tell when any product’s battery might die. Of course, devices fail for many reasons, but dead batteries are the death clock that’s built in.
That’s why I spent six weeks pushing some of the world’s largest corporations to find these basic facts about some of our favourite gadgets:
• First, how many recharges — or, “cycles” — can the product’s battery take until its capacity drops to 80%? “After that, they are defined as dead,” because capacity starts to drop precipitously, explains Bas Flipsen, a lecturer in industrial design engineering at the Delft University of Technology.
• Second, when that inevitable day comes, what — if anything — can a consumer do to replace their battery?

Only three companies — Nintendo, e-bike maker VanMoof and Apple (in part) — disclosed these battery details on their websites. Nearly half of the companies I contacted, including Sony, Dyson, Logitech, Google-owned Fitbit, Amazon, Therabody and Samsung-owned JBL refused to answer or just ignored my specific questions.

None of this should be a secret.

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It’s a reasonable point. And at least he isn’t insisting that there shouldn’t be sealed batteries. That ship long ago sailed: people have shown their preference very clearly.
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Can bacteria eat plastic? Hunt is on for mutants to devour waste on an industrial scale • The Times

Tom Whipple:

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No one will ever know quite how it happened, or exactly when. But here is one plausible explanation for how bacteria in a Japanese recycling plant started eating plastic. Each day, plastic bottles piled up in the plant in Osaka, ready to be filtered, separated, recycled and reused. A few bacteria lived among this casually tossed detritus, surviving mainly on the sugary remnants of fizzy drinks left sloshing around in the bottles. It was an energy-poor environment — but the strange thing is, there was energy all around waiting to be unlocked.

It had taken energy to make those plastic bottles and this remained within their chemical bonds. Nature, though, had no way of unlocking it. How could it? In the span of evolutionary time, plastic has only just been invented.

The great tragedy of plastic is that this wonder material is destined to go brittle, fragment, degrade and become useless, but never decompose.

Except, on one ordinary day, in this one ordinary place in Japan, one piece of plastic did decompose. A bacterium had reproduced with a slight mutation, meaning the chemical tools its offspring used to eat things behaved slightly differently.

…PET, of which most plastic bottles are made, has a particular kind of bond between its monomers that can be cut using a specialised enzyme. There are other plastics, though — 80% of them, in fact — that have other, tougher, bonds that remain impervious, which need their own enzymes.

Even if we find the tyrannosaurus rex of PET, we need more plastic predators. Scientists are increasingly confident, however, that they are out there. To find a plastic-chomping bacterium once could be sheer luck. To find one twice? That’s different.

Other enzymes — better enzymes still — must be out there, and across the world, people are looking. They are burying plastics in soil, swabbing in the springs of Yellowstone, sieving the detritus of recycling plants, searching through the genomes of known species.

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Death from above, printed at home: Ukrainians deploy DIY weapons against Russian troops • Yahoo News

Michael Weiss and James Rushton:

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The three Russian soldiers, filmed from a weaponized Ukrainian drone from above, scramble into what looked like a worn-down sedan somewhere near the city of Kharkiv. Their position had already been struck earlier by another drone and they were trying to evacuate an injured comrade. Just then, a small metal projectile about the size of a soda can descends on them. It has been outfitted with an incongruous white fin. It sails through the air, slipping right through the aperture in the car’s roof, detonating on impact. One soldier is still able-bodied enough to sprint away, although the same can’t be said for his co-passengers. As smoke billows from the top, the vehicle careers out of control, grinding to a stop.

The drone’s camera footage shows a Russian soldier through the sunroof. Another is crawling on the ground. Though the concussive force of the blast didn’t kill these men instantly, the numerous lacerations caused by the mortar’s shrapnel may yet prove deadly.

The video ends.

“We have thousands of volunteers in Ukraine hoping to say ‘hi’ to Russian occupiers in this way,” Yuri Vlasyuk said admiringly of his own team’s work. The soft-spoken 46-year-old explained to Yahoo News at a cafe in Kyiv that the white fin on the bomb, which gave it enough aerodynamic stability to perfectly meet its target, was 3D-printed by a Ukrainian civilian at home. Although it was dropped by an operator of Ukraine’s 92 Mechanized Brigade, the manufacturer received his own digital trophy.

“The volunteers that print these for the drones get a video showing them being put to good use,” Vlasyuk said with a grin. He then pulled up other videos posted to Facebook and Twitter showing grenades and mortars with 3D-printed fins hitting columns of unsuspecting Russian troops, as well as ones displaying Ukrainian hands packing their metal tubes with nails.

Vlasyuk self-effacingly described himself as a “just a guy who knows some cool people.” In reality, his cohort is an organic network of tinkerers — engineers, electricians, programmers and 3D printers — who’ve been helping their military wage a grassroots campaign against Russian invaders.

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This is a different war from any previous in so many ways. 3D printing. Video. Citizen participation (though Iraq had that, we just didn’t see it that way). And for so many watching on social media, real death.
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The sublime Danielle Steel: for the love of supermarket schlock • LA Review of Books

Dan Sinykin:

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Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.

“I’ve reacted with amazement, shock, and outrage when people have asked me in my fan mail, who writes my books,” Steel wrote in a blog post in 2012, when she was working at a much more reasonable pace. “WHO writes my BOOKS??? Are you kidding? Who do you think writes my books, as I hover over my typewriter for weeks at a time, working on a first draft, with unbrushed hair, in an ancient nightgown, with every inch of my body aching after typing 20 or 22 hours a day […]” She enumerates the bodily horrors of such a regimen: bleeding fingers, popped veins in her hands, and, of course, an aching back. Nevertheless, she “would never just hand off an outline for someone else to write.”

More than an insane sleep schedule makes her productivity possible. As of 2012, she employed three assistants — Heather, Allee, and Alex — who protected her from paparazzi, fielded her phone calls, and talked with “lawyers, bankers, plumbers,” handling all her business. They fed her, too, given that she doesn’t want “to stop and eat anything complicated” when she’s writing. (“I have terrible eating habits, and in my early days for some reason lived on a writing diet of liverwurst and Oreo Cookies, which became the subject of many jokes.”) I presume this setup persists. She has a researcher on retainer, Nancy Eisenbarth, who supplies specificity, past and present: “I drive her insane, calling her at 3 am, or sending her emails, needing to know what floor something is on, how many people died in a famous fire, what is the decor of a certain restaurant, or a detail about a unit of the French Resistance in WW2.” One of their most ambitious endeavors resulted in the 500-page historical romance set during the Russian Revolution, Zoya.

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You didn’t care about pulpish fiction writer Danielle Steel? But now you are. Or should be.
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Diving into digital ephemera: identifying defunct URLs in the web archives • The Signal

Olivia Meehan worked on the web archiving team at the US Library of Congress, and decided to see how well online archives of the papal transition (no, not that sort) in 2005 had survived:

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Based on the results I have so far and conversations I’ve had with other web archivists, the lifecycle of websites is unpredictable to the extent that accurately tracking the status of a site inherently requires nuance, time, and attention – which is difficult to maintain at scale. This data is valuable, however, and is worth pursuing when possible . Using a sample selection of URLs from larger collections could make this more manageable than comprehensive reviews.

Of the content originally captured in the Papal Transition 2005 Collection, 41% is now offline. Without the archived pages, the information, perspectives, and experiences expressed on those websites would potentially be lost forever. They include blogs, personal websites, individually-maintained web portals, and annotated bibliographies. They frequently represent small voices and unique perspectives that may be overlooked or under-represented by large online publications with the resources to maintain legacy pages and articles.

The internet is impermanent in a way that is difficult to quantify. The constant creation of new information obscures what is routinely deleted, overwritten, and lost. While the scope of this project is small within the context of the wider internet, and even within the context of the Library’s Web Archive collections as a whole, I hope that it effectively demonstrates the value of web archives in preserving snapshots of the online world as it moves and changes at a record pace.

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Good argument for throwing a few spare bucks over to the Internet Archive (and hoping that it won’t prolong its quixotic battle about lending ebooks from the pandemic).
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This is the future climate hawks want to see • BusinessGreen Blog Post

James Murray:

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No country is even close to getting every part of the net zero transition right yet, no matter how often the UK government insists it is world leading. But there is a fascinating thought experiment to be had imagining what an economy would look like right now if it took the best part of different countries’ net zero strategies.

An economy that boasted the UK’s offshore wind industry and planned zero carbon industrial hubs, France’s nuclear plants, Denmark’s heat pumps, Norway’s EV adoption rates, China’s clean tech manufacturing and epic renewables projects, India’s solar boom, Germany’s passivhaus buildings, the Netherland’s cycling networks, South Africa’s Just Transition Partnership, Japan’s levels of energy efficiency, Costa Rica’s forest protection, the EU’s carbon market, Australia’s rooftop solar industry, Iceland’s direct air capture plant, and Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem, would be well on its way to net zero already.

Such an economy would be more productive, more competitive, and less exposed to volatile fossil fuel prices than its peers. It would play a leading role in the 21st century, shape the future of human civilisation, and push back against the march of petrostate authoritarians. It would be happier and healthier too. Done right, the public support would be overwhelming.

This is the future climate hawks want to see. It is mad they have to fight for it.

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(“Climate hawks” being those who aggressively want action on the climate crisis, as opposed to climate doves who vaguely hope things will come together.)

Related: James O’Malley on how we shouldn’t expect the energy crisis to finish any time soon. Remember how people thought, in March 2020, that the pandemic would be done by September 2020? Like that.
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Hidden Menace: massive methane leaks speed up climate change • AP News

Michael Biesecker and Helen Wieffering:

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To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty West Texas crossroads of Lenorah appears unremarkable, similar to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered throughout the oil-rich Permian Basin.

What’s not visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of invisible gas, primarily methane, billowing from the gleaming white storage tanks up into the cloudless blue sky.

The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., was observed releasing an estimated 870 kilograms of methane – an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere each hour. That’s the equivalent impact on the climate of burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day.

But Mako’s outsized emissions aren’t illegal, or even regulated. And it was only one of 533 methane “super emitters” detected during a 2021 aerial survey of the Permian conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The group documented massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea. Hundreds of those sites were seen spewing the gas over and over again. Ongoing leaks, gushers, going unfixed.

…Carbon Mapper identified the spewing sites only by their GPS coordinates. The Associated Press took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitting” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.

Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data. West Texas Gas owned 11.

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And this is only for the US. It could be a fantastic resource if it were extended worldwide (Carbon Mapper is going to start using satellites to provide more rapid data) so we could identify hotspots. It can be a tossup whether to burn the methane: traps 80x more heat than CO2 over 20 years, 25x over 100 years. So how long do you think we have? (It seems worthwhile burning the methane.)
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The women calling out Apple’s handling of misconduct claims • Financial Times via Ars Technica

Patrick McGee:

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In 2018, CEO Tim Cook spoke of the company’s commitment to “helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond”, launching an initiative to train and mentor female entrepreneurs building apps. In the company’s internal 31-page onboarding document called “Apple Start”, the iPhone maker holds itself to a high standard, telling new employees about the “Apple difference”, how it fosters teamwork and innovation, and “does things differently”.

Yet the stories shared by women at Apple indicate the world’s largest company is falling short in building the culture it aspires to. The accounts collected by the FT paint a portrait of a People [Human Resources, aka HR] team that acts less like a safe place for employees to go with complaints and more like a risk mitigation unit that protects bad managers. In six cases, women said speaking up had cast them as bad team members and resulted in their departure. In three instances, Apple offered multiple months of salary in exchange for not disparaging the company or being held liable.

In response to the FT’s findings, Apple said in a statement it works hard to thoroughly investigate all misconduct allegations, and that it strives to create “an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting any issues”. 

The company acknowledged it had not always met those ambitions. “There are some accounts raised that do not reflect our intentions or our policies and we should have handled them differently, including certain exchanges reported in this story,” Apple said. “As a result, we will make changes to our training and processes.” It declined to comment on specific cases “out of respect for the privacy of individuals involved”.

Insiders say it’s a matter of priorities. Apple “is so singularly obsessed about making the best products, that there are blinders to everything else”, says Chris Deaver, an HR business partner at Apple from 2015 to 2019. “This is an engineering-led organisation. It can be a bit logos-heavy. A bit detached from emotions.”

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Is it internal Apple culture, or is it just male culture? One can’t deny the stories, and even if they’re only isolated incidents, it’s still a problem for those women. And HR departments are the same the world over: they’re not there to change the corporate culture, they’re there to protect it.
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Damien Hirst confesses he’s been ‘all over the fucking shop’ about NFTs as he plans to burn 4,851 physical works • The Art Newspaper

Anny Shaw:

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If, like us, you find NFTs baffling, fear not. They also have Damien Hirst’s head in a spin.

One year ago, the artist launched a project in which the buyers of 10,000 NFTs were forced to choose between keeping the digital token (priced at $2,000 each) or swapping it for a corresponding work on paper. Now the jury is in: 5,149 people have traded their NFT for an enamel dot painting, meaning 4,851 NFTs remain in existence. The physical works that were not claimed will now be burned by the artist.

Revealing that he kept 1,000 NFTs for himself, Hirst has confessed on Twitter that he has “been all over the f****** shop with my decision making, trying to work out what I should do”.

In the beginning, Hirst says he was adamant that he would “chose all physical”, or “most physical”. Then he flip-flopped to thinking he would go half and half. “Then I felt I had to keep all my 1,000 as NFTs and… then all paper again and round and round I’ve gone, head in a spin.”

Despite the onset of “crypto winter”, but perhaps unsurprisingly given that The Currency project is backed by the technology company Heni, Hirst ultimately stuck to NFTs. He says: “I decided I need to show my 100% support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1,000 physical artworks). Eeeeeek! I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

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So if I read this correctly, there were 11,000 physical works (the 10,000 plus the 1,000 Hirst kept), but now there will only be 6,149 of them. I’d say that means the physical work has at least doubled in value, while the NFTs, which are attached to nothing that can be valued, haven’t. (If the figure is originally 10,000 and now just 5,149, the value has surely doubled.) That suggests the physical purchasers are the smart ones. Here’s the original story in March 2021, which makes less than zero sense. (Thanks Alan for the link.)
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Earth sets new record for shortest day • Time And Date

Graham Jones and Konstantin Bikos:

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The narrow, jagged spikes in the chart are a result of the Moon’s monthly orbit around Earth. The longer, smoother waves—with the shortest days coming in or around July each year—are related to movements in Earth’s atmosphere.

What is causing the current downward trend in the length of the shortest day? It could be related to processes in Earth’s inner or outer layers, oceans, tides, or even climate. Scientists are not sure, and struggle to make predictions about the length of day more than a year ahead. But there are tentative ideas.

At next week’s annual meeting of the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (presentation SE05_A009), Leonid Zotov—together with his colleagues Christian Bizouard and Nikolay Sidorenkov—will suggest the current decrease in the length of day could have some relation to the ‘Chandler wobble’.

Chandler wobble is the name given to a small, irregular movement of Earth’s geographical poles across the surface of the globe.

“The normal amplitude of the Chandler wobble is about three to four meters at Earth’s surface,” Dr Zotov told timeanddate, “but from 2017 to 2020 it disappeared.”

If Earth’s fast rotation continues, it could lead to the introduction of the first-ever negative leap second.

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[Chandler from Friends voice:] Could the Earth be any more puzzling?

Also: “Chandler wobble”?

via GIPHY

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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

Start Up No.1853: Germany’s nuclear pause, Truss’s solar farm madness, California’s mega-drought, Intel in trouble, and more


Textbooks are expensive, but also resaleable. Now Pearson thinks NFTs can somehow solve the problem. Do you? CC-licensed photo by Patrick 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 11 links for you. Hypertextual. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Nuclear power plants could stay open, says Germany • WSJ

Bojan Pancevski and Georgi Kantchev:

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said for the first time that his government could postpone the planned closure of its remaining nuclear reactors, as he criticized a decision by Russia to constrain gas flows to Germany—a move that could deal a severe blow to Europe’s largest economy.

Last month, Russia shut down for maintenance its giant Nord Stream pipeline, which connects Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea and is operated by Russian state-owned energy producer Gazprom PJSC.

After the maintenance ended, Gazprom restored the flow, but only to 40% of the pipeline’s capacity. It has since cut that to 20%, saying it couldn’t maintain normal flow without a turbine that had been undergoing maintenance in Canada. On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz rejected that explanation, saying Russia refused to take delivery of the turbine.

The looming gas shortage has forced the government to trigger emergency measures, raising the specter of gas rationing over the winter that could force factories to shut down and push Europe’s powerhouse economy into a recession.

On Tuesday, the chancellor broke with a longstanding policy and said for the first time that it “could make sense” to keep Germany’s last three nuclear reactors online. They are due to be shut down in December as part of the country’s transition to renewable energy.

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A “transition to renewable energy” that involves opening new coal-fired power stations. It’s ridiculous, and the Greens who 20 years ago pushed to close them should hang their heads in shame.

Alternate headline: Germany re-engages with reality.
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‘Our fields shouldn’t be full of solar panels’: Truss vows to crackdown on renewables development • BusinessGreen News

Cecilia Keating:

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Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss has fuelled concerns the UK’s onshore renewables sector could face further barriers to development in the coming weeks, after the frontrunner to become the next Prime Minister promised to “change the rules” to ensure farming is prioritised over new solar projects.

Speaking at Conservative leadership husting held [on Monday] in Exeter, the Truss also outlined her support for domestic fossil fuel extraction, promising to “exploit all the gas in the North Sea”, and reiterated her pledge to suspend ‘green levies’ on energy bills, arguing the proposed reforms would bolster domestic energy supplies and ease the cost-of-living crisis for households.

In her address to attendees at the event, the Foreign Secretary said she would allow fracking in locations “where communities supported it” and back the maximum extraction of the UK’s offshore fossil gas resources.

“I will also make sure we exploit all of the gas in the North Sea and make sure we use that to bolster our domestic energy supply,” she said. “I’ll move forward faster with nuclear, including major nuclear stations but also small modular reactors which are produced in Derby and a major a major opportunity for our country as well.”

Commercial small modular reactors do not currently exist, although the government is providing significant financial support for the nascent sector in the hope that it could play a role in the transition to a net zero emission energy system.

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These people are idiots. They think there will be magical technological solutions (as they thought would happen for Northern Ireland’s trade barrier with the UK/Europe; didn’t happen). And they value a field more highly than future generations.
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California’s megadrought is worse than you think • E&E News

Anne C. Mulkern:

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Nearly three-quarters of California is in either extreme or exceptional drought, considered worse than severe, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It’s so bad that scientists say the ongoing drought in the western United States marks the region’s driest 22-year stretch in more than 1,200 years.

The conditions have affected a broad swath of regions and industries. California wells are going dry. Farmers are either paying a premium for water or letting their fields sit empty. And there is growing concern that water exports from the Colorado River could come to a halt.

“We are dealing with a changed climate in California that demands we reimagine not just how we use water, but how we capture, store and distribute it throughout the state,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week as he addressed local water leaders.

Scientists pin a large share of the blame for the megadrought on climate change. UCLA climate scientist Park Williams, whose recent work flagged the ongoing Western drought as a historical anomaly, said about 40% of its severity is due to climate change. The study looked at California, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and southwest Montana.

“The turn-of-the-twenty-first-century drought would not be on a megadrought trajectory in terms of severity or duration without” human-caused climate change, the study said.

But others are saying elected officials such as Newsom aren’t doing enough to respond to the historic conditions. Some argue the state needs to impose mandatory cutbacks, limits on commercial water use and more storage options.

Andrew Fahlund, senior program officer at the Water Foundation, a California nonprofit, said it would have been helpful to take steps to conserve water “earlier in the drought cycle.” But “it is a little too late to do that this time around,” he said.

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Equifax sent lenders inaccurate credit scores on millions of consumers • WSJ

Andrew Ackerman and AnnaMaria Andriotis:

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Equifax provided inaccurate credit scores on millions of U.S. consumers seeking loans during a three-week period earlier this year, according to bank executives and others familiar with the errors.

Equifax sent the erroneous scores on people applying for auto loans, mortgages and credit cards to banks and nonbank lenders big and small—including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co. and Ally Financial Inc., the people said. The scores were sometimes off by 20 points or more in either direction, the people said, enough to alter the interest rates consumers were offered or to result in their applications being rejected altogether.

The inaccurate scores were sent from mid March through early April, the people said. The company began disclosing the errors to lenders in May, they said.

Equifax said it has since fixed the error, which the company described as a “technology coding issue.” The glitch didn’t alter the information in consumers’ credit reports, the company said.

…The percentage of incorrect scores provided to lenders varied, the people said. At one big bank, for example, 18% of applicants during the three-week period had incorrect scores, with an average swing of 8 points, one of the people said.

Equifax told one large auto lender that about 10% of applicants during the three-week period had inaccurate scores, according to a person familiar with the matter. Of those, several thousand saw a change of 25 points or more on their credit score, the person said. In a small number of cases, applicants went from having no credit score at all to a score in the 700s—or vice versa, the person said.

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One thing Equifax is noticeably not doing in this story: offering to make good where it screwed up. Equifax, you might recall, is the company that was hacked on a colossal scale back in 2017 because it had failed to make a crucial security patch. The hackers were inside for 76 days. Lawsuits are ongoing.

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Pearson says NFT textbooks will let it profit off secondhand sales • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Textbook publisher Pearson suggests blockchain tech could let it take a cut of secondary textbook sales, capturing a section of the book market that’s so far escaped it. As quoted by Bloomberg, Pearson CEO Andy Bird believes non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, could help publishers make money off textbook resales, although he stopped short of describing concrete plans.

“In the analog world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” said Bird after the company announced its latest quarterly earnings this week. “The move to digital helps diminish the secondary market, and technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life.” Bloomberg suggests this would mean letting buyers resell ebooks, something that’s so far been a rarity in the publishing world.

It’s not clear how, when, or if NFTs might show up in Pearson’s catalog. But they could mark a new stage in a long-standing publishing war. Thanks to legal concepts like the first-sale doctrine, physical book buyers typically own the media they’ve purchased outright, and they’re allowed to sell it without the original publishers making money. But ebooks have complicated that calculus. Any digital transfer creates a new “copy” of the work, and third-party secondhand ebook sales (along with other secondhand digital media sales) have faced serious legal challenges as a result.

That’s historically given physical books a built-in advantage for students, who can buy or sell them secondhand to defray their often extraordinary upfront costs — without the publishers taking any of that money. Allowing ebook resales could make that advantage less dramatic.

As with many mainstream crypto applications, NFTs don’t bring an obvious technical innovation to this question.

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Not surprised that there weren’t concrete plans. I bet a lot of people would be delighted if Pearson tried to attach NFTs to its textbooks, since it’s hard to see that being any obstacle to copying, or resale of a physical object.
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Inside a mechanical watch • Bartosz Ciechanowski

Bartosz Ciechanowski:

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What you see here is known as the movement – the inner part of a mechanical watch that’s usually enclosed in a metal case. In this article I’m focusing on a watch movement itself, since beautiful watch cases merely hide the intricate mechanisms which are the real stars of the show.

The entire watch movement has a lot of parts, and in this blog post I’ll explain the purpose of each one. The world of watchmaking is jargon-heavy, so many of the components may have unfamiliar names, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to remember them – the names and parts will be color-coded for easy reference.

In a functioning watch many parts are in constant motion. By default all animations in this article are enabled, but if you find them distracting, or if you want to save power, you can globally pause all the following demonstrations.

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I’ve heard this article referred to a couple of times, but hadn’t actually clicked through to it before. But since we’ve been pondering the attraction of mechanical watches, this seems apposite. (Thanks Giuseppe for the link.)

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I was on TikTok for 30 days: it is manipulative, addictive, and harmful to privacy • UX Collective

Luiza Jarovsky:

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Videos must be short, fast, quickly awe-inspiring and preferably using soundtracks, filters, effects, descriptions, tags and content that are currently trending in the app. To thrive on TikTok, you must be fixated on it. You must use it frequently to know what is trending on the app, otherwise you will lose the timing — and timing is everything. There is a popular dance everybody else is doing? Stop what you are doing, get dressed, get your phone in the vertical position and start recording now. The path to TikTok success is joining micro-trends and mimicking successful videos highlighting your personal touch, in a bandwagon-compulsion style. If you are a teenager and you missed a trend, you lost a valuable opportunity of online popularity and social validation among your peers.

On this topic, teenagers have stated that their social lives currently revolve around TikTok: new trends, dances, viral videos, emerging stars, who is popular over there and who is not, what is cool and what is not. The power of TikTok’s algorithm over today’s youth is inconceivable. Getting together is an opportunity to attempt a TikTok viral, so get your phones ready.

Regarding the content available on TikTok: it is known that creators have 3 seconds to enchant the viewer, otherwise their video will be thrown into TikTok’s forgetfulness blackhole. In order to captivate in 3 seconds, the content must essentially be outstanding: either shocking, irreverent, socially awkward, scary, performing admirable abilities, showing exposed bodies and so on. There is no room for ordinariness.

«

Back in the days when writing stuff down at length was a significant challenge, people composed and memorised very long oral poems – Homer did well on this front. Now we can capture video at any time, we need to capture attention within three heartbeats. An observation, in passing.
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Michael Saylor steps down as MicroStrategy CEO, company takes $917m charge on bitcoin • Yahoo Finance

David Hollerith:

»

MicroStrategy announced on Tuesday its founder and CEO Michael Saylor will step down from the top job and take a new post as executive chairman, focused on the company’s bitcoin strategy.

Phong Le, the company’s president, will take over in the CEO role.

MicroStrategy reported quarterly results that were light of Wall Street estimates on Tuesday, with revenue coming at $122.1m against expectations for $126m. Losses in the quarter totaled $918.1m, with $917.8m attributable to the company’s bitcoin holdings.

In a statement, MicroStrategy said Saylor will focus primarily on, “innovation and long-term corporate strategy, while continuing to provide oversight of the Company’s bitcoin acquisition strategy.”

“As Executive Chairman I will be able to focus more on our bitcoin acquisition strategy and related bitcoin advocacy initiatives, while Phong will be empowered as CEO to manage overall corporate operations,” Saylor said in a statement.

«

OK, but what are Microstrategy’s corporate operations? What does it do? I’ve never seen an explanation, including in this story. The FT calls it a “habitually unprofitable software shop”: apparently it sells enterprise business intelligence application software. Employees seem to like it. It was founded in 1989.

Somehow it acquired a huge cash pile, Saylor (who owns 70% of the shares – don’t think he’s going away) decided bitcoin was a one-way bet, and, well, here we are.
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The changing face of compute • Digits to Dollars

Jay Greenberg:

»

Once upon a time chip companies all specialized on designing one type of chip: Intel made CPUs; Qualcomm made modems; Nvidia made GPUs; Broadcom (pre-Avago) made networking chips. That age is all over. The future of semis will be designing ever more specific chips for ever more specific uses. This change will take many years to play out, but the transition has already begun. This is going to upend the semis industry to the same degree that consolidation over the past 20 years has.

There are many causes of this. This simplest is to just say Moore’s Law is slowing, so everyone needs to find a new business model. But that really does not explain much, so let’s unpack it.

…Once upon a time, data centers were essentially warehouses full of CPUs. Now they have to house GPUs, AI accelerators, funky networking loads and a bunch of FPGAs too. This is often called heterogenous compute, and it the opposite of that past CPU uniformity.

Nor are these changes only happening in data centers. The whole notion of “Edge Compute” looks increasingly to be an exercise in custom and semi-custom silicon popping up in all kinds of places – cars, factories and smart cities – to name just a few.

Ultimately, the major chip companies are going to have to decide how to address these changes. Building custom chips is not a great business, but designing semi-custom chips is full of risks not least picking the right designs, supporting them and hoping they land on target. Established companies are already starting to position themselves for this, and for the first time in a decade the door for start-ups is starting to open a crack.

«

Which suggests problems for Intel. Which brings us to…
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Intel? They are who we thought they were • Share Donors

Doug (mule):

»

Now they [Intel] expect PCs to be down 10% in volume, which is more in-line with market forecasts, compared to the clearly above market forecast last quarter. The part I don’t buy is that Q4 will magically start to improve inventory. I acknowledge the seasonal impacts, but we aren’t even firmly in a recession. Continuing to push out hopes that things turn around very specifically in Q4 feels contrived to me, especially when the second half of the year’s macro results could be much worse than right now. Intel moved down numbers, but this is not a kitchen sink. That’s the worrying part. Oh, speaking of which, how the hell did they not preannounce this?

They didn’t answer that question (weird), and then they also talked about other execution issues that they have been facing, namely Sapphire Rapids [a new CPU] volume delay. Pat [Gelsinger, the new Intel CEO] mentioned execution issues multiple times, and the proof is in the pudding; they are not executing well.

The infamously broken culture continues to hurt, and Pat saying that employees are engaged via surveys is not exactly assuaging my fears. In fact, given their GAAP net loss (maybe one of the few in the company’s history), the variable bonuses that engineers are receiving are one the lowest, if not the lowest, payouts in the company’s storied history. How will you turn around a culture when you keep losing and everyone’s making less money? Talk about negative momentum.

«

I hadn’t noticed, but Intel had an absolutely terrible quarter, with revenues and profits down, and longtime rival AMD passing it in market cap. Given that AMD doesn’t actually make chips, just designs them, that means that all of Intel’s multi-billion-dollar foundries are being written off as worthless by the market.

This is a very big shift. Intel has permanently lost a top-end customer (Apple) that bought about 5-10% of premium processors. The PC market is shrinking. Its rival is pulling ahead. Intel’s in a dive, and Gelsinger has a hell of a job to pull it out.
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Apple plans to delay launch of iPadOS 16 update by about a month • Bloomberg via MSN

Mark Gurman:

»

Apple Inc. expects to delay its next major iPad software update by about a month, taking the unusual step of not releasing it at the same time as the new iPhone software, according to people with knowledge of the matter. 

For the last several years, the tech giant has released major iPad and iPhone software updates, known as iPadOS and iOS, at the same time in September. This time around, Apple plans to put out iOS 16 during the usual period but not launch iPadOS 16 until October, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. 

The delay of the software is due, at least in part, to an ambitious effort to overhaul the iPad’s multitasking capabilities. The update includes a feature called Stage Manager that lets users operate several tasks at the same time, resize windows and bounce between different clusters of apps.

During beta testing, the system has drawn criticism from some developers and users for its bugs, a confusing interface and lack of compatibility with most iPads.

«

I’ve been trying iPad OS 16 on an older (2018?) iPad Pro, and it seems fine to me, but I’m not trying Stage Manager. (Doesn’t run on that model.) But a delay does mean that Apple is actually giving it the attention and focus it deserves as a separate platform.
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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

Start Up No.1852: Twitter demands Musk details, TikTok’s moderator hell, another giant crypto hack, EV sounds, and more


Is the explanation for men’s liking for pricey watch that they like fiddly things? Or collections? CC-licensed photo by Mohammad Fahmi Mohd Shah 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 9 links for you. Rewind. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Elon Musk associates named in Twitter subpoena • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Faiz Siddiqui:

»

In a subpoena Twitter issued on Monday, its legal team asked for information about a who’s who of Silicon Valley elite, including investors Chamath Palihapitiya, David Sacks, Steve Jurvetson, Marc Andreessen, Jason Calacanis and Keith Rabois, among others. Some of the figures have not been previously named as having any involvement in the deal, suggesting the breadth of Twitter’s search for information to support its legal attempt to force Musk to go through with his deal to buy the company.

Twitter declined to comment. Palihapitiya, Sacks, Calacanis, Jurvetson and Rabois did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Musk and two of his attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A flood of document requests issued over the weekend and into Monday marks the latest twist in the contentious and fast-evolving court case between the social media service and Musk, who is trying to pull out of his bid to take over the company.

After Musk said he was exiting the deal last month — accusing Twitter of not being forthright about the amount of spam and bots on its service — Twitter sued Musk in a Delaware business court, known as a Chancery Court. Musk in turn countersued Twitter on Friday. Twitter also issued subpoenas over the weekend to a group of banks involved in the deal, including Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley.

The subpoena obtained by The Post includes extensive requests for communications, including “checklists, timelines, presentations, decks, organizational calls, meetings, notes, recordings” related to the deal’s financing.

«

The discovery of Musk’s planning is going to be wonderful. He may not have quite realised what this was going to entail. (The trial isn’t until October, so lots of time for discovery.)
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A factory line of terrors: TikTok’s African content moderators review horrific videos • Business Insider

Rosie Bradbury and Majd Al-Waheidi :

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It was only a few hours into her shift when the horror streamed through her screen. Imani, 25, a content moderator for TikTok in Morocco, saw a young man throw a cat into the air before impaling it on a sword. The moderator, who worked out of a small one-bedroom house in Casablanca, was shocked.

“I love cats,” she said. “I’d never imagined I’d see such a scene in real life. It’s not a movie. It’s not a joke. It’s real,” she continued.

Two years later, the video is still etched in her mind, she said. Whenever she thinks of it, she tries to distance herself from the memory. “I created a wall between my job and my life. I didn’t think about my job outside my shift. I had a baby to take care of,” she said.

Imani worked for TikTok’s growing Middle East and North Africa division through Majorel, an outsourcing firm in Luxembourg, and was tasked with reviewing some of the most gruesome content on the platform, including suicides and child-abuse material.

Though she had a bachelor’s degree in English, she struggled to find work during the first months of the pandemic. Imani and her husband, a technician, could barely support their infant daughter. In September 2020, when she was offered the job at Majorel, despite the meager pay of $2 an hour, she thought it was a godsend. The ability to work remotely also meant she could take care of her child.

Imani didn’t know then that the work would be so psychologically damaging, she said, and she still feels the effects of the job today.

But she isn’t alone. Nine current and former content moderators in Morocco who worked on Majorel’s TikTok contract described experiences of severe psychological distress as a result of their jobs.

«

The whole job of human content moderation will surely be seen in the near future as a form of paid abuse. If ever there was a job that cried out to be automated all the way, it’s this one.
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Nomad crypto bridge loses $200 million in ‘chaotic’ hack • The Verge

Corin Faire:

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After a few quiet months, it’s happened again: another blockchain bridge hack with losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nomad, a cryptocurrency bridge that lets users swap tokens between blockchains, is the latest to be hit after a frenzied attack on Monday, which left almost $200 million of its funds drained.

The hack was acknowledged by the Nomad project’s official Twitter account on Monday, August 1st, initially as an “incident” that was being investigated. In a further statement released early Tuesday morning, Nomad said that the team was “working around the clock to address the situation” and had also notified law enforcement.

In another Twitter thread, samczsun — a researcher at the crypto and Web3 investment firm Paradigm — explained that the exploit was made possible by a misconfiguration of the project’s main smart contract that allowed anyone with a basic understanding of the code to authorise withdrawals to themselves.

“This is why the hack was so chaotic,” samczsun wrote. “[Y]ou didn’t need to know about Solidity or Merkle Trees or anything like that. All you had to do was find a transaction that worked, find/replace the other person’s address with yours, and then re-broadcast it.”

A further post-mortem from blockchain security auditing firm CertiK noted that this dynamic created its own momentum, where people who saw funds being stolen using the above method were able to substitute their own addresses to replicate the attack. This led to what one Twitter user described as “the first decentralized crowd-looting of a 9-figure bridge in history.”

«

Why does this keep happening, ask people in only industry where this keeps happening.
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Why are men obsessed with watches? • The Guardian

Jeremy Langmead, in 2009:

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It wasn’t so long ago that your father would hand you a gold-plated watch on your 21st birthday and that would be that. It never crossed a man’s mind that he might need to add another two or three by the time he hit 30. And it certainly never crossed his mind that when he reached 40 he might be grateful to receive a smart wooden box with different felt-lined compartments in which to keep his “collection” of watches.

The fact that men are still buying and cherishing quality timepieces is of great comfort to an industry that, in the early 1970s, thought its time, if you will excuse the pun, had come. The invention of the quartz watch (in analog or digital form) in 1967 might initially have been hailed a great technological achievement, but it wasn’t long before it was also seen as the biggest challenge the traditional timepiece had faced since the wristwatch first became popular at the end of the first world war. The fact that a cheap Casio with a flashing LED time display was what every young hipster soon craved, coupled with the economic doldrums in which the world found itself in the 1970s, spelled disaster.

It took a few years of navel-gazing and re-evaluating what a watch was truly for before, in the mid-1980s, a few forceful and inventive characters in the industry came back with a design philosophy and marketing programme that brought the sector back from the brink. These horological pioneers decided that watches would not merely be timekeepers, they would be mini-masterpieces that showcased extreme craftsmanship, represented tradition, incorporated technology and embraced innovation. They would effectively be a Savile Row suit, Ferrari sports car, Mayfair member’s club and Nasa spaceship rolled into one package that could sit neatly on your wrist.

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Langmead also comments that “A watch is a Porsche that you can take to meetings – and it doesn’t harm the planet either.” Readers offered lots of commentary to my question yesterday about why the hell it is that (some) men will spend wild amounts of money. It seems to be a combination of completionist nerdery, jewellery (this piece was categorised under “Men’s jewellery” in The Guardian’s system).

There’s also sentimental value, as this Hodinkee piece suggests. Particular thanks to Serge, JFC and Chris for their input.
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What should a nine-thousand-pound electric vehicle sound like? • The New Yorker

John Seabrook:

»

for pedestrians distracted by their phones, [vehicle] engine sounds are everyday lifesavers, as the tiger’s distant roar was for napping early humans. Except that the predators are motor vehicles—and the new ones are virtually silent.

In response to this threat, Congress passed the 2010 Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, a law that few Americans paid attention to at the time, and that took almost 10 years to implement. As a result of the legislation, every electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid manufactured since 2020 and sold in the US must come equipped with a pedestrian-warning system, also known as an acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS), which emits noises from external speakers when the car is travelling below 18.5mph. (Similar regulations apply in Europe and Asia.)

Automakers have enlisted musicians and composers to assist in crafting pleasing and proprietary alert systems, as well as in-cabin chimes and tones. Hans Zimmer, the film composer, was involved in scoring branded sounds for BMW’s Vision M Next car. The Volkswagen ID.3’s sound was created by Leslie Mándoki, a German-Hungarian prog-rock/jazz-adjacent producer. The Atlanta-based electronic musician Richard Devine was brought in to help in making the Jaguar I-Pace’s voltaic purr.

Some automakers cooked up sounds entirely in-house. The Porsche Taycan Turbo S has one of the boldest alerts: you’re in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab as he flips the switch to animate the monster. Engineers in the Audi Sound Lab made the lower frequencies of the Audi E-Tron GT Quattro’s alert by algorithmically mixing different tones produced by recording an electric fan through a long metal pipe; the full alert references the sumptuous soundscapes of the film “Tron” and its sequel.

«

I think the sounds must explain the quiet, eerie whooshing and wheezing that I sometimes hear from (the surprisingly large number of) EV/hybrids in the town where I live as they tootle along.

The (long) article doesn’t mention how loud AVAS have to be, so I checked: between 56 and 75 decibels, which is between “moderate rainfall” and “a dishwasher in operation”.
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Open data in the water industry • Ofwat

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Open data means making data freely available to everyone to access, use and share, unless there’s a really strong justification for not doing that. Data and the people, processes and technology that support it – are important assets – like  water pipes and treatment works.  

Data is essential for developing insight, making informed decisions and improving services. The use of open data could transform water and wastewater service delivery by increasing transparency, increasing efficiency, enhancing customer experience, and stimulating innovation. 

Working alongside the water industry, consumer groups and the Open Data Institute, Ofwat has sought to understand the benefits of open data and how it could be used to help address some of the challenges the water sector faces: climate change, the need to protect the environment, responding to changing customer demands and protecting the most vulnerable.  

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Ofwat is the UK’s regulator for the privatised water industry. It’s calling this scheme, seeking more open data from the water industry, H2Open. Full marks for the naming, though the fact that it began this initiative 15 years after Michael Cross and I began the Free Our Data campaign at Guardian Technology, which sought to get exactly this sort of scheme everywhere, is a teeny bit dispiriting. (Lots of other public bodies got on board within a few years.) But better late than never.
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Why there are no nuclear airplanes • The Atlantic

Christian Ruhl:

»

The Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi had introduced the idea of nuclear flight as early as 1942, while serving on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. As World War II drew to a close, the United States began work to realize Fermi’s dream of nuclear-powered flight. From 1946 until 1961, vast teams of engineers, strategists, and administrators toiled in a whirl of blueprints, white papers, and green bills in an attempt to get the idea off the ground.

The advantages of nuclear-powered airplanes mirrored those of nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines did not need to surface for fuel, and nuclear airplanes would not need to land. A 1945 proposal at the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) promised, “With nuclear propulsion, supersonic flight around the world becomes an immediate possibility.” A secret Atomic Energy Commission memorandum now held in the Eisenhower Presidential Library explained the promise of nuclear flight in a more measured tone. Nuclear energy “should make possible ranges of one or more times around the world with a single loading of the reactor.” The idea of a nuclear-powered bomber became a strategic dream for the military; it could stay aloft for days to cover any number of targets throughout the world, before returning to the United States without refueling.

…But nuclear power came with its own problems. The reactor would have to be small enough to fit onto an aircraft, which meant it would release far more heat than a standard one. The heat could risk melting the reactor—and the plane along with it, sending a radioactive hunk of liquid metal careening toward Earth.

The problem of shielding pilots from the reactor’s radiation proved even more difficult. What good would a plane be that killed its own pilots?

To protect the crew from radioactivity, the reactor needed thick and heavy layers of shielding. But to take off, the plane needed to be as light as possible. Adequate shielding seemed incompatible with flight.

«

Assume they solved the heat problem, but not the shielding/weight one. What smart solution did the USAF come up with in the late 1950s (before advanced autopilots) that could have made the Flying Nuke reality?
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Should Apple snoop on your iPhone? • The Spectator

Sam Leith on the backing that Apple’s “CSAM scanning before photos get uploaded to iCloud” proposal:

»

here’s where the practical, or instrumental, argument comes in. Would using AI to scan every iPhone photo album for illegal images not, at a minimal cost to privacy in principle, potentially achieve the tremendous good of catching some of the cruellest and most depraved users of child abuse images? Well, yes, it might. That’s not a trivial case.

But reluctant as I am to deploy a thin-end-of-the-wedge argument: this is the thin end of a wedge. First they came for the nonces, as Pastor Niemoller did not say. You could by the same token argue that any number of different crimes could be prevented by the simple expedient of giving the government (or, God help us, private companies) unlimited powers of surveillance. Most of us, at some point along this continuum, accept that the fact privacy can protect the guilty is a price we pay for its value in giving us freedom. I seem to remember God took roughly that view when he gave us all the capacity to choose between good and evil for ourselves.   

In his latest novel The Every, Dave Eggers imagines a tech company that programs its Alexa-type devices to listen to every domestic conversation – and if its AI detects phrases or tones of voice that are associated with domestic violence, to send the police round. Eggers, who is by bent against that sort of soft totalitarianism, is honest enough to admit that that case is the one ‘that keeps me up at night’: ‘The justification will be: there’s 10 million cases of domestic violence in the US each year,’ he said when I interviewed him about it. ‘Surveillance cameras would put a dent in that. How do you justify not having it? You could make an argument, well, OK, sure, domestic violence is catastrophic but privacy is more important. I don’t think it’s a powerful argument for most people.

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Eggers excels at finding the reductio ad absurdum (or expansio ad absurdum?) scenario that makes you pause. Leith’s piece is neatly balanced; why, you might finish it thinking that technology can’t actually solve social questions on its own.
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Craig Wright wins ‘only nominal damages’ of £1 in bitcoin libel case • The Guardian

Dan Milmo:

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For years Craig Wright has claimed that he is the mythical figure who created bitcoin. But a legal bid by the Australian computer scientist to defend his assertion that he is Satoshi Nakamoto resulted in a pyrrhic victory and a tarnished reputation on Monday.

A high court judge ruled Wright had given “deliberately false evidence” in a libel case and awarded him £1 in damages after he sued a blogger for alleging that his claim to be the elusive Nakamoto was fraudulent.

“Because he [Wright] advanced a deliberately false case and put forward deliberately false evidence until days before trial, he will recover only nominal damages,” wrote Justice Chamberlain.

Wright had sued blogger Peter McCormack over a series of tweets in 2019, and a video discussion broadcast on YouTube, in which McCormack said Wright was a “fraud” and is not Satoshi. The issue of Nakamoto’s identity was not covered by the judge’s ruling because McCormack had earlier abandoned a defence of truth in his case.

Wright claimed that his reputation within the cryptocurrency industry had been “seriously harmed” by McCormack’s claims. He said he had been invited to speak at numerous conferences after the successful submission of academic papers for blind peer review, but 10 invites had been withdrawn following McCormack’s tweets. This included alleged potential appearances at events in France, Vietnam, the US, Canada and Portugal.

…The judge noted that there was “no documentary evidence” that Wright had a paper accepted at any of the conferences identified in the earlier version of his libel claim, nor that he received an invitation to speak at them except possibly at one, and that any invitation was withdrawn.

…He concluded: “Dr Wright’s original case on serious harm, and the evidence supporting it, both of which were maintained until days before trial, were deliberately false.”

«

After Rebekah Vardy v Coleen Rooney last week, this is the bitcoin version. Two judges, one in the US and now this one in the UK, have decided they’re deeply unimpressed by Wright’s testimony. The judgment is hilarious, especially in its nitpicking precision about how Wright tried to slalom around the facts about the academic papers.
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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

Start Up No.1851: AlphaFold predicts protein universe, data centres slow housing build, endemic monkeypox?, and more


The supply of secondhand pricey watches has suddenly boomed following the crypto crash. Coincidence? Vendors think not. CC-licensed photo by Seko Fotografía 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 9 links for you. Tickety-boo. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


‘The entire protein universe’: AI predicts shape of nearly every known protein • Nature

Ewen Callaway:

»

From now, determining the 3D shape of almost any protein known to science will be as simple as typing in a Google search.

Researchers have used AlphaFold — the revolutionary artificial-intelligence (AI) network — to predict the structures of more than 200 million proteins from some 1 million species, covering almost every known protein on the planet.

The data dump is freely available on a database set up by DeepMind, the London-based AI company, owned by Google, that developed AlphaFold, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL–EBI), an intergovernmental organization near Cambridge, UK.

“Essentially you can think of it covering the entire protein universe,” DeepMind chief executive Demis Hassabis said at a press briefing. “We’re at the beginning of new era of digital biology.”

The 3D shape, or structure, of a protein is what determines its function in cells. Most drugs are designed using structural information, and the creation of accurate maps of proteins’ amino-acid arrangement is often the first step to making discoveries about how proteins work.

DeepMind developed the AlphaFold network using an AI technique called deep learning, and the AlphaFold database was launched a year ago with more than 350,000 structure predictions covering nearly every protein made by humans, mice and 19 other widely studied organisms. The catalogue has since swelled to around 1 million entries.

“We’re bracing ourselves for the release of this huge trove,” says Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at University College London, who has used the AlphaFold database to identify new families of proteins. “Having all the data predicted for us is just fantastic.”

This really is one of the great breakthroughs by AI, but it could take years for its effect to be felt in the outside world. Also, it’s 23TB for the entire database, which is going to mean lots of local storage (plus updates) or lots of pricey cloud storage.

Even so, in some ways this is as crucial as the first genome sequencing. Another British (DeepMind) success.
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Debt-ridden water giants at risk from rate rises • The Sunday Times

Jon Yeomans:

»

Net debt in the water sector topped £56bn last year, according to Ofwat. One of the most indebted firms, Thames Water, took steps to shore up its finances last month with the injection of £1.5bn of fresh equity from shareholders.

Last year, Southern Water was taken over by Australian bank Macquarie after coming close to bankruptcy. Last week, it became the first big water company to implement a hosepipe ban because of the dry conditions across England.

Scrutiny of [the UK’s 25] water companies has grown after a damning report by the Environment Agency earlier this month recommended that company directors be jailed if they fail to meet their responsibilities to clean up rivers. Emma Boyd, the agency’s chairwoman, said performance on pollution had “hit a new low”, adding: “Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this.”

The warning on rates comes as the Bank is this week expected to raise rates from 1.25% by as much as half a percentage point, as it seeks to tame inflation that is running at 9.4%.

Ofwat was granted new powers last year to enforce greater financial resilience in the water sector. It said its proposals on curbing payouts to water company owners “will reinforce the link between performance and dividends”. The proposals will remain open for consultation until September 29.

The regulator has already attracted strong resistance from water utilities after floating its ideas at the end of last year. In one response to the proposals, Thames Water warned that tighter rules on dividends could have “unintended consequences — by making it more challenging to attract equity” from investors.

«

Ofwat’s page on the (privatised in 1989) water companies financial resilience has a spreadsheet which is faintly worrying: gearing (the debt/equity ratio) averages 72%. For a monopoly that could be OK, except the rate they can charge is fixed, so rising interest rates mean a squeeze where they can’t raise costs: investment or dividends must slow.
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Housing development in England under threat as electricity capacity nears limits • Financial Times

George Hammond:

»

New housing development in London and the south-east of England is at risk as electricity networks near capacity and upgrades are stalled, according to experts, despite the UK government forecasting increased demand for power almost a decade ago.

Electricity demand has fallen in recent years as homes have become more efficient, but it is forecast to rise as drivers adopt electric vehicles and homeowners install heat pumps, placing additional demands on local networks.

Three boroughs in west London have paused development because there is no spare capacity for new connections to the electricity grid until 2035, the Financial Times reported on Thursday.

Experts on Friday warned the problem could spread as national efforts to hit net zero carbon emissions boost electricity consumption, unless networks are quickly upgraded to withstand extra demand.

“The truth is, the overall electricity system is creaking a bit,” said Guy Newey, formerly energy adviser to two Conservative business secretaries and now boss of Energy Systems Catapult, an independent research centre.

Warning that power outages were likely without upgrades, he added: “If we’re serious about net zero targets we have to build ahead of need, otherwise you’ll keep getting stories like west London.”

«

But how could it be that west London, which has all sorts of space to its west, could be struggling?

»

In Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow, the network has come under strain far faster than expected because a series of data centres, which can consume as much energy as thousands of homes, have been connected.

According to the Energy Networks Association, which represents network operators, the volume of new requests for connections from data centres in the past two years alone has equalled the entire area’s electricity demand.

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Axie Infinity has left Filipino gamers despondent and in debt • TIME

Andrew Chow and Chad De Guzman:

»

amerson Orias was working as a line cook last year in the rural Philippines when his friend told him he could make way more money playing a new video game.

Orias was earning about 4,000 pesos a month (about $80, a little less than half the national minimum wage) making takoyaki—Japanese octopus balls. His friend told him he and others were pocketing up to $600 a month playing Axie Infinity, a game fueled by cryptocurrency and NFTs.

Orias, now 26, desperately needed an escape hatch from his financial woes: his mother had had a stroke and required medication, and electricity and grocery bills were stacking up. So he plunged into Axie, doing battle with cartoon monsters for hours deep into the night. He soon began earning cryptocurrency, which he converted into pesos, allowing him to take better care of his mother and his home. At the same time, thousands of young people in the Philippines were jumping headlong into the game. For a brief moment at the peak of crypto’s astonishing 2021 boom, these young Filipino players were fulfilling a longtime dream of crypto’s most ardent evangelists: that “play-to-earn” blockchain games like Axie could lead the way to a more equitable, opportunity-rich global economy.

Fourteen months later, most Filipino players, including Orias, have exited the game nursing anger and anxiety—and, in some cases, thousands of dollars down. Orias grew to hate playing the game. It was boring and stressful, he says, a common refrain among the dozen players TIME interviewed for this story. “I felt fatigued all the time. I became more aggressive in every aspect of my life,” he says.

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Data point:

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The game initially made a huge impact in the Philippines. At one point, players there made up 40% of the game’s user base.

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An indenturing scheme developed inside the Philippines, which is what created the indebtedness. Same as so many schemes for earning money or whatever in games.
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It may be too late to stop monkeypox becoming endemic in the US and Europe • Daily Beast

David Axe:

»

Monkeypox is spreading fast all over the world, especially in the United States and Europe. With cases doubling every two weeks or so, there’s a growing risk that monkeypox will become a permanent problem in countries where, before, outbreaks were rare and small.

The pox is, in other words, close to becoming endemic in a lot of new places. If that happens, it might become very difficult to eradicate. Monkeypox, which causes a fever and rash and is fatal in a very small number of cases, will become yet another disease that people have to worry about all the time.

For the pox, there are two paths to endemicity. If the virus infects enough people fast enough to outpace authorities’ efforts to trace transmission and vaccinate at-risk individuals, it might become endemic in people. “We are getting close to this already,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.

The good news with this kind of endemicity is that it doesn’t have to be permanent. Reversing human endemicity is hard, yes—but it’s possible. “If it’s just spreading in humans it can be controlled—eventually—through vaccination and natural immunity,” Amesh Adalja, a public health expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The Daily Beast.

But monkeypox was originally a “zoonotic” animal virus. It circulates in rodent and monkey species in West and Central Africa, where outbreaks in the human population are frequent.

If the pox finds a home in some animal species in North America or Europe—say, squirrels, rats, or prairie dogs—it’ll be all but impossible to eradicate regionally.

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This other article says it has 50 mutations, far more than you’d expect for its type. Possibly it’s an example of immune escape from immunocompromised hosts, as we’ve seen with SARS-Cov-2. (Thank G for the links.)
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The crypto market collapse has flooded the luxury watches from brands like Rolex • Bloomberg

Andy Hoffman:

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The collapse in cryptocurrencies is easing supply of the most sought after watches on the second-hand market, depressing prices for hard-to get-Patek Philippe and Rolex models.

The supply of trophy watches such as the Rolex Daytona or Patek Nautilus 5711A “is now much larger,” online-watch trading platform Chrono24 said in an emailed statement. 

The recent swoon in cryptocurrency valuations “has directly impacted pricing of luxury watches from brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe,” said the company, which is based in Karlsruhe, Germany, and has more than half a million watches listed for sale on its website.

The price decline for the most sought after models is the latest indication that the once soaring second-hand luxury watch market is starting to lose pace. Surging valuations for crypto currencies had minted a new class of luxury buyers, leading to an unprecedented price increase for models particularly from brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek. Now that many digital tokens have been hammered, these consumers are going into reverse.

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Never have understood the desire to have a super-pricey watch. They’re not just premium, as in well-made; they’re super-expensive but without any further functionality than others. And of course less functionality than a smartwatch, which you could upgrade multiple times for the price of one of those. Feel free to point me to someone explaining this.
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Meta officially cuts funding for US news publishers • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Meta on Tuesday began telling its news partners in the US that the company no longer plans to pay publishers for their content to run on Facebook’s News Tab, sources tell Axios.

As the company moves forward with sweeping changes to the Facebook experience, news has become less of a priority.

Meta’s VP of media partnerships, Campbell Brown, told staffers the company was shifting resources away from its news products to support more creative initiatives, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Facebook brokered a slew of three-year deals with publishers in 2019. At the time, the company was ramping up its investment in news and hired journalists to help direct publisher traffic to its new tab for news.

The deals were worth roughly $105m in the US, sources told Axios. In addition to that, the company spent around $90m on news videos for the company’s video tab called “Watch.”

“A lot has changed since we signed deals three years ago to test bringing additional news links to Facebook News in the US. Most people do not come to Facebook for news, and as a business it doesn’t make sense to over-invest in areas that don’t align with user preferences,” a Facebook spokesperson told Axios.

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Back and forth it goes: Facebook does like news, it doesn’t like news, although it loves video more and more (until it pauses and doesn’t because friends and family users don’t make much video). It’s like a slow-motion abusive relationship.
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The dirty carbon secret behind solid state memory drives • Discover Magazine

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Swamit Tannu at University of Wisconsin in Madison and Prashant Nair at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver have measured the carbon footprint per gigabyte of these devices across their entire lifetimes and, unexpectedly, it turns out that SSDs are significantly dirtier. “Compared to SSDs, the embodied [carbon] cost of HDDs is at least an order of magnitude lower,” say the researchers.

Tannu and Nair come to their conclusion by adding up the amount of carbon emitted throughout the estimated 10-year lifespans of these devices. This includes the carbon emitted during manufacture, during operation, for transportation and for disposal.

The carbon emitted during operation is straightforward to calculate. To read and write data, HDDs consume 4.2 Watts versus 1.3W for SSDs. The researchers calculate that a 1 terabyte HDD emits the equivalent of 159 kilograms of carbon dioxide during a 10-year operating lifespan. By comparison, a 1 terabyte SSD emits just 49.2 kg over 10 years.

But SSDs are significantly more carbon intensive to manufacture. That’s because the chip fabrication facilities for SSDs operate at extreme temperatures and pressures that are energy intensive to maintain. And bigger memories require more chips, which increases the footprint accordingly.

All this adds up to a significant carbon footprint for SSD manufacture. Tannu and Nair calculate that manufacturing a 1 terabyte SSD emits the equivalent of 320 kg of carbon dioxide. By comparison, a similar HDD emits just 40 kg.

So the lifetime footprint for a 1 terabyte SSD is 369.2 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent versus 199 kg for an HDD. So HDDs are much cleaner.

That’s a counterintuitive result with important implications. At the very least, it suggests that computer manufacturers and cloud data storage operators should reconsider the way they use SSDs and HDDs.

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I suspect the cloud companies (at the least) won’t, because the operation output is so low. Manufacturing output is, as so often, someone else’s problem – the manufacturer’s?
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Astrobiologists suggest the Earth itself may be an intelligent entity • Futurism

Tony Ho Tran:

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A group of researchers have posed a fascinating — and downright mind bending — thought experiment: If a planet like Earth can be “alive,” can it also have a mind of its own?

The team published a paper exploring this question in the International Journal of Astrobiology. In it, they present the idea of “planetary intelligence,” which describes the collective knowledge and cognition of an entire planet.

…The researchers point to evidence that underground networks of fungi can communicate to suggest that large-scale networks of life could form a vast invisible intelligence that profoundly alters the condition of the entire planet.

One of the primary species driving that change at the moment, they point out, are humans — and currently, from the climate to the plastic crisis, we may well be irrevocably changing the environmental balance.

“We don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet,” Adam Frank, professor of physics at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the paper, said in a press release about the paper. 

The researchers believe that such thought experiments can help humans to understand their impact on the Earth and serve as a guide on how to better it. Interestingly, they also believe that it could aid in the search for aliens too.

“We’re saying the only technological civilizations we may ever see — the ones we should expect to see — are the ones that didn’t kill themselves, meaning they must have reached the stage of a true planetary intelligence,” Frank said. 

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So it’s “may” as in “could be”. All very Solaris, isn’t it?
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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

Start Up No.1850: Joe Manchin – the good climate guy?, defending British Gas’s profits, why Twitter still has Trends, and more


The “Wagatha Christie” libel trial hinged on a set of WhatsApp messages – or more precisely, their absence. CC-licensed photo by Christoph ScholzChristoph Scholz 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. They’re… not Rebekah Vardy’s links. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The two-week scramble that saved Democrats’ climate agenda • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Jeff Stein:

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For Schumer, the party’s chief negotiator, a key to assuaging Manchin’s concerns were policy sweeteners that boosted fossil fuels and coal-heavy West Virginia. But Manchin also spoke with a wide array of others — fellow Democrats, economists including Larry Summers, even executives like Bill Gates. They each delivered some version of the same message: If Democrats did not seize on a rare opportunity to combat climate change, the US may never have another chance at it again.

Republicans, who opposed spending to address global warming, initially thought they had scored a political victory: Last weekend, a group that included conservatives, industry officials and a top outside adviser to President Donald Trump even held a call with Manchin, during which several praised him for scuttling the package.

Ultimately, though, Manchin came to agree with his own party, satisfied that Democrats’ plans would not harm the economy. Explaining his decision, Manchin maintained at a news conference Thursday he never actually wavered in his engagement, even once “the dogs came after me.” Schumer, for his part, seized on the magnitude of the moment, having finalized an agreement that had eluded Democrats for about a year.

“You’re going to change the country for the better,” he told Manchin in the hours before they released the bill late Wednesday afternoon. “This is going to be historic for the country.”

…If it is adopted, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 would see nearly $370bn in new climate and energy-related investments, aiming to foster new technology, cut back on emissions and satisfy Manchin’s demand that the U.S. maintain support for fossil fuels.

It includes new and extended tax credits for solar, wind and other renewable energy, and more than $80bn in rebates for home improvements and electric vehicles. It also sets aside $1.5bn to curtail harmful methane emissions. And at Manchin’s insistence, it mandates new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.

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Sooooo Manchin wasn’t the bad guy, just negotiating? This messes up all sorts of narratives. However…
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“Soon it will be unrecognisable”: total climate meltdown cannot be stopped, says expert • The Guardian

Robin McKie:

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The publication of Bill McGuire’s latest book, Hothouse Earth, could not be more timely. Appearing in the shops this week, it will be perused by sweltering customers who have just endured record high temperatures across the UK and now face the prospect of weeks of drought to add to their discomfort.

And this is just the beginning, insists McGuire, who is emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. As he makes clear in his uncompromising depiction of the coming climatic catastrophe, we have – for far too long – ignored explicit warnings that rising carbon emissions are dangerously heating the Earth. Now we are going to pay the price for our complacence in the form of storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves that will easily surpass current extremes.

The crucial point, he argues, is that there is now no chance of us avoiding a perilous, all-pervasive climate breakdown. We have passed the point of no return and can expect a future in which lethal heatwaves and temperatures in excess of 50ºC (120ºF) are common in the tropics; where summers at temperate latitudes will invariably be baking hot, and where our oceans are destined to become warm and acidic. “A child born in 2020 will face a far more hostile world that its grandparents did,” McGuire insists.

In this respect, the volcanologist, who was also a member of the UK government’s Natural Hazard Working Group, takes an extreme position. Most other climate experts still maintain we have time left, although not very much, to bring about meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A rapid drive to net zero and the halting of global warming is still within our grasp, they say.

Such claims are dismissed by McGuire.

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Even if you think he’s wrong, why not act as if he’s right? All that happens is you ameliorate the situation sooner and have more time to reflect. Whereas going to “wait and see” is gambling in every way. Truly, Don’t Look Up was a documentary from the future, not a satire.
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Why we should want Shell and Centrica to keep making money • Sky News

Ian King is a business presenter at Sky:

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Centrica’s half-year operating profits rose to £1.3bn from £262mn in the same period last year, largely due to higher wholesale gas and electricity prices. Centrica’s assets include the Morecambe Bay gas field and a 20% stake in the UK’s remaining nuclear power stations.

But operating profits at British Gas itself actually fell by 43% during the period and there are good reasons for that.

Responsible suppliers try to buy in advance as much of the gas that they expect households to demand, whereas the myriad of suppliers to have collapsed during the two years were buying it on the ‘spot’ market. That worked well when wholesale energy prices were falling – and meant they were cheaper than the likes of British Gas, EON and EDF Energy – but meant that, when prices rose, they were caught out.

Yet those wholesale price rises have also caught out British Gas. One reason its profits fell was because the energy price cap changes only twice a year – so any sudden increases in wholesale costs could not be passed on to households. The second factor is that, as unprofitable rivals collapsed, remaining household suppliers like British Gas were obliged by the regulator to take on those customers. In the case of British Gas, it took on 150,000 such customers in the first six months of the year, mainly former customers of the collapsed Together Energy. That was on top of 550,000 taken on during 2021.

Because it is obliged to take on these customers at short notice, it is unable to hedge the cost of supplying them in advance, which effectively leaves it doing so at a loss in some cases. That is why profits at British Gas fell during the first six months of the year. Chris O’Shea, the Centrica chief executive, noted today that the average profit per household customer at British Gas is around £6. Put in the context of the current household energy price cap of £1,971 and it is clear that British Gas is hardly making merry at the expense of household customers.

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It’s certainly an argument for allowing Centrica (which owns British Gas, the biggest supplier) to keep making profit. Though not quite an argument against renationalising it (British Gas was privatised in 1986, into the teeth of a stock market crash).

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Case No: QB-2020-002028: Rebekah Vardy v Coleen Rooney • Judiciary UK

This is the full judgment by the Hon Mrs Justice Steyn on the libel case brought by Rebekah Vardy (wife of England footballer* Jamie Vardy), who accused Coleen Rooney (wife of more successful England footballer Wayne Rooney) of libelling her by implying she had sold stories to The Sun newspaper based on posts on Rooney’s private Instagram account. Rooney had carefully limited who could see posts there, until only Vardy’s account could, and noted that stories based on those posts still appeared in The Sun.

In a Twitter thread, she explained this, leading her to be dubbed “Wagatha Christie” (WAGs = Wives And Girlfriends of the England footballers at the Euro 2016 event. Never claim that we aren’t moving the language on.)

For a successful defence, Rooney had to prove she was telling the truth and that it was Vardy, nobody else, who had leaked the stories. The case hinged on WhatsApp conversations between Vardy and her publicist/agent Caroline Watt, which could prove or disprove whether they’d shared details of Rooney’s posts and talked about selling them to Sun journalists. (Rooney, as a Liverpudlian, hates The Sun.)

Incredibly unfortunately Watt dropped her phone in the North Sea just after she’d been told to preserve it for the trial. But Vardy’s phone was fine: she was told to upload her WhatsApp data to Intralinks, used for such legal investigation. She said that while doing this it crashed and incredibly unfortunately wiped the relevant chats.

Over to one of the expert witnesses:

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Mr [Matthew] Blackband explained that the export of WhatsApp data to Intralinks occurs in two stages. The first stage involves opening WhatsApp, choosing the chat to be exported, pressing “Export Chat” and then choosing from the options “Attach Media” or “Without Media”. This results in a single zip file being downloaded which will contain all the messages, either including or excluding the media files, depending on which option was chosen. This first stage involves interaction with the WhatsApp program. It is that program which packages the messages (including media, if selected) into an archive which is locally stored as a zip file on the laptop (or other device) on which it was created. The WhatsApp program “is easily capable of creating a large archive”. The second stage involves uploading the zip file from the laptop (or other device) on which it is stored, via the internet, to the Intralinks workspace. Uploading the zip file does not involve any interaction with the WhatsApp application.

Mr Blackband’s opinion was that what Ms Vardy described was impossible. In his view, the loss was “indicative of a manual deletion” by an individual. That was because what Ms Vardy described was the computer crashing at the second stage of the process. Such a crash could have no impact on the data available on WhatsApp because there was no engagement with WhatsApp during the second stage of the process. If there had been a malfunction at the first stage (albeit he did not consider that was what Ms Vardy had described), no zip file would have been created. For there to be data loss he considered that there would “have to be a corruption of the database which would mean WhatsApp wouldn’t work”. In those circumstances, the WhatsApp account would not work at all because there is a single ChatStorage.sqlite database file which holds the messages. Corruption of the database could not lead to loss of specific chats from within a single file.

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The Hon Mrs Justice Steyn essentially concluded that Vardy was lying, and dismissed her case, vindicating Rooney. I think it’s the first big trial that has hinged on WhatsApp messages (or their peculiar absence.) The whole judgment is worth reading for the sheer entertainment value.

* American readers: soccer
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Why Twitter still has those terrible Trends • MIT Technology Review

Abby Ohlheiser:

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Trends is central to the story that Twitter would like to tell about itself, says Shireen Mitchell, a technology analyst and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women—a story about how it captures and serves the public conversation. But manipulated trends (even innocuous ones) and amplified extremism on the algorithmically generated trending list undermine that story. 

“Twitter keeps trying to make it seem like ‘trending’ is somehow authentic, trending hot topics that people care about. But in most instances it’s gamification,” she says. 

Besides Twitter’s claims that Trends serves an important public function, there’s another reason the feature sticks around. It’s a revenue source for the platform: Twitter started selling promoted spaces on Trends in 2010. Currently Twitter sells what it calls Trend Takeover spots and displays ads in the search results for trending topics. 

On July 28, for instance, a sponsored trending topic for a new Christopher Nolan film was promoted at the top of Twitter’s US trending list, and in the “For You” column of customized trends. 

“I don’t think they actually think through the actual benefit to their users versus the benefit to their bottom line,” Mitchell says. Twitter declined to comment on its ad program for Trends. 

…Twitter’s argument is that it’s better to work to improve Trends than to retire the feature, emphasizing the role of human curators in providing context and sources for a subset of trending topics.

But despite repeated attempts to address its potential for harm, Trends has remained essentially the same. A feature that was meant to reflect the topics of the day on Twitter by automatically monitoring for rapid swells of post frequency became an opportunity to manipulate the conversation and generate news coverage.

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The headline’s implied question is very neatly answered: it’s the ads. A huge proportion of people must look at Trends, so ads there will be more valuable than those shown in individual feeds.
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The age of algorithmic anxiety • The New Yorker

Kyle Chayka:

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Just last week, Facebook implemented a new default Home tab on its app that prioritizes recommended content in the vein of TikTok, its main competitor.

Almost every other major Internet platform makes use of some form of algorithmic recommendation. Google Maps calculates driving routes using unspecified variables, including predicted traffic patterns and fuel efficiency, rerouting us mid-journey in ways that may be more convenient or may lead us astray. The food-delivery app Seamless front-loads menu items that it predicts you might like based on your recent ordering habits, the time of day, and what is “popular near you.” E-mail and text-message systems supply predictions for what you’re about to type. (“Got it!”)

It can feel as though every app is trying to guess what you want before your brain has time to come up with its own answer, like an obnoxious party guest who finishes your sentences as you speak them. We are constantly negotiating with the pesky figure of the algorithm, unsure how we would have behaved if we’d been left to our own devices. No wonder we are made anxious.

In a recent essay for Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson described a nagging feeling that Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations and automated playlists were draining the joy from listening to music by short-circuiting the process of organic discovery: “Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted, none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal.”

…I recently sent out a survey about algorithms to my online friends and followers; the responses I received, from more than a hundred people, formed a catalogue of algorithmic anxieties. Answering a question about “odd run-ins” with automated recommendations, one user reported that, after he became single, Instagram began recommending the accounts of models, and another had been mystified to see the Soundgarden song “Black Hole Sun” pop up on every platform at once. Many complained that algorithmic recommendations seemed to crudely simplify their tastes, offering “worse versions of things I like that have certain superficial similarities,” as one person put it.

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Spotify exits short-lived Car Thing hardware play, reports Q2 MAUs of 433 million, offsetting Russia exit and service outage • TechCrunch

Ingrid Lunden:

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[Spotify] announced [April-June] quarterly earnings in which its monthly active users grew by 19%, or 19 million, to 433 million — 5 million above its own guidance. The company originally had projected that its exit from Russia and the service outage it had in the quarter would mean only 14 million new users this quarter. Paid users now stand at 188 million, up 14%.

But it missed on its gross margins, which it said were “negatively impacted by our decision to stop manufacturing Car Thing,” the company’s in-vehicle device for controlling music. Spotify’s taking a €31m charge ($31.4m) on that business line as it discontinues it.

“The goal of Spotify’s Car Thing exploration was to better understand in-car listening, and bring audio to a wider range of users and vehicles,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Based on several factors, including product demand and supply chain issues, we have decided to stop further production of Car Thing units. Existing devices will perform as intended. This initiative has unlocked helpful learnings, and we remain focused on the car as an important place for audio.”

The device was only really launched earlier this year [in February], and it is still being sold as of this story going out, but with big discounts [from $90 to $50]. Spotify will support those that have been sold, but it seems that this will be the end of the line for Spotify’s much-discussed move into hardware.

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As I’ve said in the past: the hardest thing to make in hardware is a profit.
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China property sales could plunge by one-third, analysts say, as crisis deepens • The Guardian

Martin Farrer and agencies:

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Property sales in China could fall by one-third this year, spelling more trouble for the country’s giant housing sector as people lose faith in the market and pressure increases on struggling developers to complete presold apartments.

Amid reports that the government is preparing a bailout of the sector that could cost 300bn yuan ($44bn), experts at the rating agency S&P have concluded that the fall in sales will be twice as bad as they had originally forecast for this year.

“S&P Global Ratings now expects national property sales will fall 28%-33% this year,” the note said on Tuesday, “almost double the drop of our prior forecast.”

Last week’s news that disgruntled buyers of apartments at housing projects in more than 100 cities had banded together to withhold payments on unfinished homes has focused attention on the unfolding crisis.

The strike has ratcheted up the pressure on developers, who are already facing acute liquidity problems and who depend on customers paying upfront for homes off the plan to keep cash flowing through the business. The proceeds can be used to pay debts as well so the loss of this income will hit hard.

Some high-profile developers have already fallen into default, causing waves of panic in the global financial system – most notably Evergrande, the country’s second-biggest property firm which admitted last year that it could not pay part of its $300bn debt mountain.

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From a week ago, but this is one to keep an eye on. If China slumps into a housing-driven recession, or debt crisis, the effects could be very unpredictable. (It will need lots of foreign exchange? Exports will be prioritised? It won’t buy as many US Treasuries, forcing US interest rates up? I don’t know which if any would happen.)

Background: “Mortgage strikes threaten China’s economic and political stability“. You’ll recall that the Covid monitoring system was used to block some people from protesting. Key line in the article: ““Why do I have to pay mortgage when the property I bought has yet to be finished?” said one angry social media user”.
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Facebook faces suspension in Kenya after approving genocide ads • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron:

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The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a Kenyan agency founded to mitigate ethnic violence and promote national healing in the wake of the 2007-08 post-election crisis, told reporters on Friday that Facebook was “in violation of the laws of our country.”

“They have allowed themselves to be a vector of hate speech and incitement, misinformation and disinformation,” Danvas Makori, an NCIC commissioner said during a briefing.

Facebook claimed last week to have cracked down on harmful content in the country, issuing a press release praising itself for the many ways it was tackling problematic content. But immediately after, the company approved ads run in both English and Swahili crafted specifically to instigate ethnic violence in Kenya, human rights groups said.

Nonprofit groups Global Witness and Foxglove revealed Thursday that a third independent test had proven Facebook incapable of detecting language designed to incite violence around the August elections. Specifically, the groups said, Meta approved ads on Facebook in both Swahili and English that included calls to rape and behead Kenyan citizens along ethnic lines.

The NCIC said Friday that that the results of the Global Witness/Foxglove tests had corroborated its own internal findings.

“Suspending ads and rolling out ‘break glass’ measures are steps Facebook can take to reduce the risk to the Kenyan election today. That’s what we’re calling for,” Crider said, pointing to steps taken by the platform following the US insurrection on Jan 6, 2021. “Facebook is in violation of the laws of our country.”

Global Witness said in a statement that it chose deliberately not to publish the exact language used in the tests conducted on Facebook, but described the ads as “dehumanising, comparing specific tribal groups to animals and calling for rape, slaughter, and beheading.”

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Going to be fun watching how Facebook deals with this. What, accidentally inspire genocide? Whoever would suggest such a thing?
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Web3 network Helium claims rideshare company Lime is one of its biggest clients. Lime says that’s not true • Mashable

Matt Binder:

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Since 2019, the decentralized wireless network service, which bills itself as a peer-to-peer network for the Internet of Things, has touted rideshare company Lime as one of its marquee clients, claiming the company uses its service to geolocate rentable escooters. There are numerous mentions of this partnership on its website, along with the presence of Lime’s company logo, and in press coverage with various news outlets.

There’s just one problem: That partnership never really existed.

“Beyond an initial test of its product in 2019, Lime has not had, and does not currently have, a relationship with Helium.” Lime senior director for corporate communications Russell Murphy said to Mashable.

«

Not only Lime: also Salesforce, whose logo was also prominently displayed on its page. Besides this nonsense, the whole idea behind Helium is bonkers: in an age of abundant data via 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi, it offers a “crypto-powered mesh network” where you buy a router that works as a hotspot ($400-$800 – for a router??) and hope like crazy that random people log onto it, because you get paid according to how much data they use. Why would they, though? Informed estimates reckon it’s generating a total of about $6,500 per month.

Naturally because it’s “crypto”, venture firm Andreessen Horowitz has put pots of money – $365m – into it. Seems unlikely that’s coming back.
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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