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.

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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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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:


[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.


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:


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.


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:


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.”


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:


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

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