Start Up No.1870: how Britain’s papers responded to the Queen’s death, Russia routed on Ukraine fronts, text to AI video?, and more


Does the answer to Britain’s lagging productivity lie in Legoland? Tim Harford went to find out. CC-licensed photo by Brooks Duncan on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Veiled. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Inside British newsrooms on the day Queen Elizabeth II died: secret codes, chaos and black ties • British GQ

Chris Stokel-Walker:

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[On Thursday just after midday] A folded-up piece of paper was passed along both [Parliamentary] front benches, and the country knew something was up by the looks on the faces of those who read the note. “It was fucking weird because as soon as the note went round everyone kind of knew and was going: ‘She’s dead,’ right,” says one Whitehall correspondent for a national newspaper. (Like all those quoted in this story, they were given anonymity in order to speak freely.) “Then it’s been waiting and knowing without knowing, writing other stuff under the pretence it’s not all going to be scrapped.”

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The correspondent was told by editors to write on the major political stories of the day – an unfunded promise to limit energy bills, the settling in of a new prime minister and the creation of her government – that they knew would never be read.

Thirteen minutes after the note came the tweet. “Following further evaluation this morning, the Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision,” wrote Buckingham Palace. “The Queen remains comfortable and at Balmoral.”

“When the statement dropped about her health it was obvious, and suddenly no MPs would talk,” the Whitehall correspondent says. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs stopped responding to messages.

Across at what was once known as Fleet Street, time stopped.

Unlike the April 2021 death of the Duke of Edinburgh, which was announced out of the blue, says one BBC journalist, the announcement that the Queen was “comfortable” but doctors were “concerned” was a coded message: get ready. “She obviously didn’t look well on Tuesday with Truss,” says the BBC journalist. “No idea it was imminent though. They gave us a six-hour run up with the ‘comfortable’ announcement, which is preferable to just dropping on wires like they did with the Duke of Edinburgh.”

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Excellent piece. A good friend of mine, who isn’t a journalist, texted me when the note was passed in Parliament to say “I think the queen has just died”. So it wasn’t exactly un-obvious to the alert observer.
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As Russians retreat, Putin is criticized by hawks who trumpeted his war • The New York Times

Anton Troianovski:

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Even as Moscow celebrated, [the pro-Russian blogger] wrote, the Russian Army was fighting without enough night vision goggles, flak jackets, first-aid kits or drones. A few hundred miles away, Ukrainian forces retook the Russian military stronghold of Izium, continuing their rapid advance across the northeast and igniting a dramatic new phase in the war.

The outrage from Russian hawks on Saturday showed that even as Mr. Putin had succeeded in eliminating just about all of the liberal and pro-democracy opposition in Russia’s domestic politics, he still faced the risk of discontent from the conservative end of the political spectrum. For the moment, there was little indication that these hawks would turn on Mr. Putin as a result of Ukraine’s seemingly successful counteroffensive; but analysts said that their increasing readiness to criticize the military leadership publicly pointed to simmering discontent within the Russian elite.

“Most of these people are in shock and did not think that this could happen,” Dmitri Kuznets, who analyzes the war for the Russian-language news outlet Meduza, said in a phone interview. “Most of them are, I think, genuinely angry.”

The Kremlin, as usual, tried to minimize the setbacks. The defence ministry described the retreat as a decision “to regroup” its troops, even though the ministry said a day earlier that it was moving to reinforce its defensive positions in the region.

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One wonders if this is one of those “gradually and then suddenly” situations.
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Russian army collapses, and revolution near-certain as Russia loses war; when/where harder to predict • Real Context News

Brian E. Frydenborg:

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Russia’s self-defeating stupidity truly knows no bounds. A great way to help its imperial project work would be to invest in seriously training the Luhansk and Donetsk rebels well, equipping them well, and treating them and the people it was occupying well. This did not happen; indeed, the Russians instead are conscripting many people there against their will, are barely giving them any good equipment or training. Almost like they are insulting the very people they claim to be liberating, they are giving some of them World War II-era, or even tsarist [1800s]-era , rifles and are cruelly using these people as “cannon fodder” to feel out enemy positions, including against artillery. Instead of winning people over to their cause or maintaining levels of support where Russia already had relatively high levels of support before February 24, the Russians are steadily alienating the very people at the center of their propaganda and their claims to being the good guys in this conflict. If the goal is to make these places part of Russia over the long run, mistreating the people you are going to “liberate” is only going to sow the seeds of your own failure.

In this case, it even doubtful that many of the original tens of thousands of Donetsk and Luhansk separatist militia troops allied with Russia are left standing, and it is certain that the replacement conscripts from there would not be terribly good or motivated fighters, especially given how they have been treated by Russia (indeed, it seems plenty are resisting conscription or are deserting). Their morale was already low and Russia was earlier having problems getting them to fight. Add to that the fact that some of the best Russian troops in the east were redeployed to the south, and the quality-level of Russian and separatist troops in the east right now is probably the lowest of any sector of fighting.

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Ukraine’s armed forces have made multiple breakthroughs over the past week, which has caught everyone – including observers – by surprise. If the well-equipped Ukrainian armed forces advance on a rag-tag bunch of separatists abandoned by the Russians, things will be ugly.
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Books are physically changing because of inflation • The Economist

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The industry is currently experiencing another period of shortage, and war is once again a cause (along with the pandemic). In the past 12 months the cost of paper used by British book publishers has risen by 70%. Supplies are erratic as well as expensive: paper mills have taken to switching off on days when electricity is too pricey. The card used in hardback covers has at times been all but unobtainable. The entire trade is in trouble.

Not every author is affected: a new thriller by Robert Galbraith, better known as J.K. Rowling, is a 1,024-page whopper—and this week reached the top of the bestseller lists in Britain. But other books are having to change a bit. Pick up a new release in a bookshop and if it is from a smaller publisher (for they are more affected by price rises) you may find yourself holding a product that, as wartime books did, bears the mark of its time.

Blow on its pages and they might lift and fall differently: cheaper, lighter paper is being used in some books. Peer closely at its print and you might notice that the letters jostle more closely together: some cost-conscious publishers are starting to shrink the white space between characters. The text might run closer to the edges of pages, too: the margins of publishing are shrinking, in every sense.

Changes of this sort can cause anguish to publishers. A book is not merely words on a page, says Ivan O’Brien, head of The O’Brien Press in Ireland, but should appeal “to every single sense”. The pleasure of a book that feels right in the hand—not too light or too heavy; pages creamy; fonts beetle-black—is something that publishers strive to preserve.

…at the heart of the publishing industry lies an unsayable truth: most people can’t write and most books are very bad. Readers who struggle with a volume often assume that the fault is theirs. Reviewers, who read many more books, know it is not. George Orwell, who worked as a reviewer, considered that fewer than one book in ten was worth reviewing, and that the most honest reaction to most was: “God, what tripe!”

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Not a whisper that the internet is having any effect, or could be a solution – because, indeed, physical books are still the medium that people look for.
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Runway teases AI-powered text-to-video editing using written prompts • Ars Technica

Benj Edwards:

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artificial intelligence company Runway teased a new feature of its AI-powered web-based video editor that can edit video from written descriptions, often called “prompts.” A promotional video appears to show very early steps toward commercial video editing or generation, echoing the hype over recent text-to-image synthesis models like Stable Diffusion but with some optimistic framing to cover up current limitations.

Runway’s “Text to Video” demonstration reel shows a text input box that allows editing commands such as “import city street” (suggesting the video clip already existed) or “make it look more cinematic” (applying an effect). It depicts someone typing “remove object” and selecting a streetlight with a drawing tool that then disappears (from our testing, Runway can already perform a similar effect using its “inpainting” tool, with mixed results).

The promotional video also showcases what looks like still-image text-to-image generation similar to Stable Diffusion (note that the video does not depict any of these generated scenes in motion) and demonstrates text overlay, character masking (using its “Green Screen” feature, also already present in Runway), and more.

Video generation promises aside, what seems most novel about Runway’s Text to Video announcement is the text-based command interface. Whether video editors will want to work with natural language prompts in the future remains to be seen, but the demonstration shows that people in the video production industry are actively working toward a future in which synthesizing or editing video is as easy as writing a command.

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Text prompts for text; text prompts for pictures; text prompts for video. Anything left?
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China oil demand may shrink first time since 2002 as COVID-19 curbs bite • Reuters via The Globe and Mail

Muyu Xu:

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Oil demand in China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, could contract for the first time in two decades this year as Beijing’s zero-COVID policy keeps people at home during upcoming holidays and reduces fuel consumption.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese who typically hit the roads and domestic flights during the Mid-Autumn Festival – falling on Sept. 10 this year – and early October’s Golden Week holidays are expected to stay home to avoid being ensnared by sudden lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Lockdowns in key cities such as financial hub Shanghai already hurt China’s oil demand in the second quarter while recovery for the rest of the year is expected to be slow as China sticks to its zero-COVID policy. This could cap intake of the world’s top crude oil importer and dent global oil prices.

China’s demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel could fall by 380,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 8.09m bpd in 2022, which would be the first contraction since 2002, said Sun Jianan, an analyst from Energy Aspects, calling it a “watershed moment.”

In comparison, demand rose 450,000 bpd, or 5.6%, in 2021.

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So.. actually it would still be higher than 2020. So often in economics a “contraction” is more like a continuation of the status quo.
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UK energy bills inflated by failure to implement EU power cables deal • Financial Times

Gill Plimmer:

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Britain has seven interconnectors — high-voltage power cables that connect the country to Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway — which provided almost 9% of the UK’s electricity last year.

These cables, which are owned by private companies, including National Grid, lie along the seabed and are used to export surplus electricity when supplies are plentiful and import it when they are scarce.

The UK had been part of the EU’s Internal Energy Market regime, which created a single price, automatically balancing the needs between countries using computer algorithms to match bids and offers.

But since leaving the EU single market in January 2021, the UK has moved to a backup system that involves running daily auctions. Traders — which may be part of large suppliers such as SSE, E.On or EDF, or independent commodity and power businesses — are being required to purchase or sell energy separately in each geographical market, adding to the complexity and cost of the system.

According to Baringa’s analysis of wholesale market prices, the loss of the integrated market added as much as £250m to wholesale electricity costs in 2021 and is expected to add up to £440m by the end of this year. This adds roughly 0.7% to the overall wholesale electricity cost, according to the consultancy.

Duncan Sinclair, partner at Baringa, said: “A side effect of Brexit is a temporary step backwards in the way electricity flows between us and our neighbours. The system is now less efficient — leading to higher costs — at a time when concerns around rising costs and energy security are paramount.”

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OK, it’s not a gigantic cost. But small inefficiencies add up: someone has to run the auction system, someone has to make sure it doesn’t go horribly wrong, effort has to be diverted into it. Still seeking those Brexit benefits. Still piling up the drawbacks.
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How criminals are using jammers, deauthers to disrupt Wi-Fi security cameras • WXYZ

Kiara Hay:

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A new warning is being issued for anyone who uses wireless security cameras like [Amazon’s] “Ring” to protect their home.

A Detroit woman said her Ring camera didn’t capture the moment her car was stolen from the front of her house, and one local expert said it’s because crooks are becoming more tech-savvy.

Earlier this month, the woman said her car was stolen from her driveway, and when she went to review her Ring camera footage, she realized hours were missing.

Chris Burns, the owner of Techie Gurus, said security cameras that use Wi-Fi to record are more about convenience than security. That’s because Wi-Fi can easily be disrupted, preventing the camera from capturing who is around your home, and criminals are catching on.

“If you’re relying on wireless as a security thing, you’re looking at it wrong,” Burns said. “Wireless signals are easy to jam or block.”

Those crooks can use this like a Wi-Fi jamming device, or a deauther, which can be the size of an Apple Watch.

A deauther will overwhelm a Wi-Fi system, forcing the Wi-Fi camera to stop recording if you stand close enough. The accessory only costs about $10-$50. A jammer on the other hand will cost anywhere between $150 to $1,000.

They’re also highly illegal, so jammers are more difficult to find, but a powerful jammer can prevent an entire street from recording on Wi-FI security cameras with the switch of a button.

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Worthwhile investment of course if you’re looking to steal a car worth multiple thousands. The countermeasure: plug the camera into Ethernet. Which rather takes the “ease of setup” bit away.
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How can the UK improve its productivity? I went to Legoland to find out • Tim Harford

Tim Harford:

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Productivity is one of those things that you can’t have too much of, like competent politicians or pleasant weather, and which the UK lacks more than most. Output per hour has been lacklustre in many countries since the financial crisis, but the UK has stagnated more than its peers. So how can the UK improve its productivity? I didn’t expect to find the answers at Legoland, but I did hope that it would help me to ask better questions.

First, where are the bottlenecks? For Legoland, the key constraint is the capacity of the rides. If (hypothetically) 20,000 people buy tickets to spend the day at the park, but Legoland’s attractions can only deliver 10,000 rides an hour, then one way or another visitors will have to wait two hours between each ride. That isn’t likely to prove sustainable.

The most obvious way to improve capacity is to invest in new attractions. Legoland does this, but Helen Bull, the boss of the Legoland Windsor resort, told me that there is a cycle of investment in the resort: a year or two of high investment will be followed by years with lower capital spending. As Legoland opened its fancy new Sky Lion ride last year, this implies that we may be waiting for a while before the next big attraction is built.

Could British businesses invest more? The Bank of England certainly thinks so; in 2017, it found that UK businesses persistently aimed for (and achieved) a nominal return on capital investment of 12%, despite the fact that the cost of debt fell after the financial crisis from around 6% to 3%. When a business can borrow at 3% to earn 12%, one has to wonder what is stopping it from borrowing and investing a little more.

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I enjoy Harford’s little aside digs (competent politicians). And the British productivity puzzle is one that remains endlessly puzzling.
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Paying for YouTube makes sense. But Facebook? • The Washington Post

Parmy Olson, analysing proposals by Facebook to charge for something:

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Facebook has meanwhile been throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, and very little does. In just the last few months it has closed down a gaming division, a live shopping tool and a neighborhood feature to compete with Nextdoor Holdings Inc. It is also scaling back a newsletter platform. 

Twitter’s data-licensing business is a decent diversification effort, bringing about 11% of revenue, or $570m, last year, but its reliance on user data makes it not that much different from the ad model.

YouTube has managed to shift away from ads far more successfully, in large part because they are among the most annoying on the internet. The four-second or longer ad countdown at the start of many popular videos can feel like an eternity. Its commercials noticeably take up our time and not just space on our screens. Trawl through some tweets about YouTube Premium and many are about how refreshing it is to use the website without being forced to watch ads for toothpaste or web-design companies. “I got YouTube Premium (no ads) and I can confidently say I’m *never* going back,” one user said recently.

…In the Verge report, Facebook said it would keep ads for future subscribers. That sounds crazy considering how well the opposite has worked for YouTube, but Facebook has become a victim of its own success in advertising. Its vast data-collection practices mean that its ads are so well targeted and personalized, so well camouflaged in newsfeeds, that many of its users probably wouldn’t mind having to continue scrolling past them.

That points to a looming problem. Social media firms like Facebook, which derives 97.5% of its revenue from ads, reached lofty valuations because of the seemingly unstoppable growth of digital advertising. But that growth will decelerate in the next few years, to roughly 7% in 2026 from almost 16% this year, according to a recent forecast from eMarketer Inc., a market-research firm. So wedded are Facebook and Snap to the ad model that they have little choice but to diversify. 

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Ads are a problem? Such a strange situation we find ourselves in.
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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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