Start Up No.1872: Google nixes Pixelbook, Instagram can’t catch TikTok, climate tipping points near, no port iPhone?, and more

Record levels of solar power, as seen by Diffusion Bee
Record levels of solar power this summer saved the EU from burning huge amounts of gas. Picture imagined by the AI illustration program Diffusion Bee. (Hands are hard to draw.)

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A selection of 9 links for you. Now we’re a centaur! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Guest post: solar power saved the EU €29bn this summer • Carbon Brief

Paweł Czyżak:

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In a tough summer for Europe that brought record-high energy prices and sweltering heatwaves, solar power has provided some much-needed relief.

Our analysis published today reveals that record levels of solar power across the EU this summer avoided the need for 20bn cubic metres (bcm) of gas, which would have cost €29bn (£25bn) to import.

The success of solar could help shine a pathway out of the energy and climate insecurity that the EU is currently facing.

Many EU countries have already increased renewables targets in the wake of soaring gas prices and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, looking to replace expensive gas imports. Upcoming EU-wide policy discussions could mean that solar plays a much bigger role in the future EU electricity system.

Europe is currently facing an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions. Russia’s squeeze on fossil fuel supplies is pushing electricity prices into all-time highs, with additional stress caused by nuclear reactor unavailability in France and drought impacting hydroelectricity generation in many European countries.

At the same time, solar has delivered record-high generation across the summer of 2022, helping keep the lights on and reducing the EU’s now critical gas consumption.

As the chart [in the story] shows, EU solar generation increased by 28% in summer 2022 (May-August), compared with the same period a year earlier.

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Quicker to deploy than pretty much any other source of energy. Why would you not.
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Google’s next Pixelbook Chromebook is cancelled • The Verge

Alex Heath and David Pierce:

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Google has cancelled the next version of its Pixelbook laptop and dissolved the team responsible for building it. The device was far along in development and expected to debut next year, according to a person familiar with the matter, but the project was cut as part of recent cost-cutting measures inside of Google. Members of the team have been transferred elsewhere inside the company.

As recently as a few months ago, Google was planning to keep the Pixelbook going. Ahead of its annual I/O developer conference, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh told The Verge that “we are going to do Pixelbooks in the future.” But he also acknowledged that the Chromebook market has changed since 2017 when the original (and best) Pixelbook launched. “What’s nice about the category is that it has matured,” Osterloh said. “You can expect them to last a long time.” One way Google might be thinking about the ChromeOS market is that it simply doesn’t need Google the way it once did.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has been saying for months that he intends to slow down hiring and cut some projects across the company. “In some cases, that means consolidating where investments overlap and streamlining processes,” he wrote in a July memo. “In other cases, that means pausing development and re-deploying resources to higher priority areas.” The Pixelbook team and the Pixelbook itself were casualties of that consolidation and redeployment.

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Chromebook sales have slowed down dramatically since the pandemic ended, though Pixelbooks were meant to be top-end devices. Maybe there isn’t a top end for Chromebooks after all.

More generally, though, this conforms to John Gruber’s recent observation that Google just doesn’t seem to focus on hardware, especially consumer hardware, for any sustained period. How long has the Google Pixel got?

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Review: ‘The Chaos Machine,’ by Max Fisher • The New York Times

Tamsin Shaw:

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In Max Fisher’s authoritative and devastating account of the impacts of social media, “The Chaos Machine,” he repeatedly invokes Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The 1968 movie, in which a supercomputer coldly kills astronauts on a ship bound for Jupiter, was in Fisher’s thoughts as he researched the book. Its stark, ambiguous aesthetic is perfectly poised between the utopian and the dystopian. And as a story about trying to fix a wayward technology as it hurtles out of control, it is beautifully apt.

The cinematic opening to Fisher’s book cuts from the shining halls of Facebook’s headquarters to a view of Earth from contemplative heights. We see “far-off despots, wars and upheavals. … A sudden riot, a radical new group, widespread belief in some oddball conspiracy.” The way the book connects these dots is utterly convincing and should obliterate any doubts about the significance of algorithmic intervention in human affairs.

Fisher, a New York Times journalist who has reported on horrific violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, offers firsthand accounts from each side of a global conflict, focusing on the role Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube play in fomenting genocidal hate. Alongside descriptions of stomach-churning brutality, he details the viral disinformation that feeds it, the invented accusations, often against minorities, of espionage, murder, rape and pedophilia. But he’s careful not to assume causality where there may be mere correlation. The book explores deeply the question of whether specific features of social media are truly responsible for conjuring mass fear and anger.

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Interesting topic to examine. If only there were a snappy phrase for the effect.
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Instagram stumbles in push to mimic TikTok, internal documents show • WSJ

Salvador Rodriguez, Meghan Bobrowsky and Jeff Horwitz:

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Meta’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is betting the social-media giant’s near-term future on Instagram Reels, the short-video feature he is touting as the company’s answer to TikTok.

The company’s internal research shows that Meta has a lot of catching up to do.

Instagram users cumulatively are spending 17.6 million hours a day watching Reels, less than one-tenth of the 197.8 million hours TikTok users spend each day on that platform, according to a document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that summarizes internal Meta research.

The document, titled “Creators x Reels State of the Union 2022,” was published internally in August. It said that Reels engagement had been falling—down 13.6% over the previous four weeks—and that “most Reels users have no engagement whatsoever.”

One reason is that Instagram has struggled to recruit people to make content. Roughly 11 million creators are on the platform in the U.S., but only about 2.3 million of them, or 20.7%, post on that platform each month, the document said.

Meta spokeswoman Devi Narasimhan characterized the data about viewing hours as outdated and not global in scope, but declined to disclose other numbers. She said Reels engagement currently is up, on a month-to-month basis.

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Classic Facebook PR effort: make denying noises, but don’t offer anything useful. If Instagram is cooked, then Meta is really in trouble: it’s just going to be running on inertia.
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Grandmother recreated by AI talks to mourners at her own funeral • Daily Telegraph

Justin Stoneman and Victoria Ward:

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When Marina Smith MBE died aged 87 in June, her grieving loved ones thought all they had left was their memories.

In fact, the leading Holocaust campaigner returned to them from beyond the grave in the form of an artificial intelligence-powered hologram, able to answer their questions and reveal family secrets.

Mrs Smith was one of the first adopters of new technology, available in the UK from this week, that enabled her to appear at her own funeral in Babworth, Notts.

The “holographic conversational video experience” came courtesy of StoryFile, an AI-powered video platform.

The brainchild of her Los Angeles-based son, Stephen Smith, it allowed her to deliver a brief speech about her life and spirituality and respond to questions from those who attended the ceremony, creating the illusion of a real-time conversation.

StoryFile combines the latest studio technology – a bank of 20 synced cameras to capture the subject in hologram-specific detail – advanced artificial intelligence and expert psychological evaluation to create a digital clone that allows people to talk to the dead.

“Mum answered questions from grieving relatives after they had watched her cremation,” Mr Smith said.

“The extraordinary thing was that she answered their questions with new details and honesty. People feel emboldened when recording their data. Mourners might get a freer, truer version of their lost loved one.”

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The whole world is turning into a Black Mirror episode. And we’re embracing it.
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World on brink of five ‘disastrous’ climate tipping points, study finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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The climate crisis has driven the world to the brink of multiple “disastrous” tipping points, according to a major study.

It shows five dangerous tipping points may already have been passed due to the 1.1C of global heating caused by humanity to date.

These include the collapse of Greenland’s ice cap, eventually producing a huge sea level rise, the collapse of a key current in the north Atlantic, disrupting rain upon which billions of people depend for food, and an abrupt melting of carbon-rich permafrost.

At 1.5C of heating, the minimum rise now expected, four of the five tipping points move from being possible to likely, the analysis said. Also at 1.5C, an additional five tipping points become possible, including changes to vast northern forests and the loss of almost all mountain glaciers.

In total, the researchers found evidence for 16 tipping points, with the final six requiring global heating of at least 2C to be triggered, according to the scientists’ estimations. The tipping points would take effect on timescales varying from a few years to centuries.

“The Earth may have left a ‘safe’ climate state beyond 1C global warming,” the researchers concluded, with the whole of human civilisation having developed in temperatures below this level.

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A portless iPhone? Please, Apple, don’t go there • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

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The first big problem with a portless iPhone is that it would be harder to charge.

You may well have charging pads in the kitchen, in the office, in your car, and perhaps even on the nightstand by your bed. You need to charge your phone elsewhere, though: at the airport, in a rental car, at your friend’s house, in a college lecture hall, at a conference. Hauling around the necessary charger and cable for your “wireless” charging is even worse than carrying an ordinary wired charger.

Sure, some venues now have them built in, including coffee shops and airports, but you don’t want to roll the dice on availability. Chances are good, you’d lose.

Wireless chargers also are more expensive, often bulkier and can be finicky about phone placement, even with Apple’s MagSafe technology to align your phone better. On several occasions I’ve woken up in the morning or driven for hours and discovered that wireless charging didn’t work.

Wired charging also is faster, wastes less energy and doesn’t leave my phone piping hot.

If Apple ever dumps its now archaic Lightning port and embraces USB-C port on iPhones, as I expect it will, its charging and data port becomes more useful. I already use USB-C to charge my MacBook Pro, iPad Pro, Framework laptop, Sony noise-canceling earphones, Pixel 6 Pro phone, Pixel Buds Pro earbud case, and Nintendo Switch game console and controllers. When I’m traveling, I always have a USB-C charger with me, and I expect USB-C ports to become more common in airports, planes, hotels, cars and cafes. Don’t hold your breath for a wireless charging pad jammed into an economy class seat.

“There is no question that USB-C is long overdue on an iPhone especially given it is on iPad and Mac,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “It is not always possible to do wireless or MagSafe.”

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All the signs are that Apple is heading that way – both USB-C in the medium term, and portless in the longer term.
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Why is Intel’s GPU program having problems? • SemiAccurate

Charlie Demerjian:

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Intel is usually pretty good at [software] drivers [to run its GPUs, codenamed DG2] but this time around things are quite uncharacteristic. Intel offered a few reasons for this on their Q2/22 analyst call which boiled down to, ‘this is harder than we thought’ but that isn’t actually the reason. If that was it, the SemiAccurate blamethrower would have been used and refueled several times already so what really caused this mess?

The short version is to look where the drivers are being developed. In this case Intel is literally developing the DG2 drivers all over the world as they do for many things, hardware and software. The problem this time is that key parts of the drivers for this GPU, specifically the shader compiler and related key performance pieces, were being done by the team in Russia. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and the west put some rather stiff sanctions on the aggressor and essentially cut off the ability to do business in the country.

Even if businesses decided to stick with Russia, it would have been nearly impossible to pay the wages of their workers due to sanctions on financial institutions and related uses of foreign currencies. In short Intel had a key development team cut off almost overnight with no warning. This is why SemiAccurate say it isn’t their fault, even if they saw the war coming, they probably didn’t see the sanctions coming.

Note: One tech CEO SemiAccurate talked to recently said they should have seen it coming but we didn’t have time to dig in to why they had that viewpoint.

Note 2: SemiAccurate has known about this problem for several weeks and did not write this story, especially the following portion, until we knew certain things were completed and no one would be put in harm’s way by this disclosure. We are satisfied that our story will not cause harm to innocent people at this point, something we could not have said with certainty a month ago. That said we will still omit some details, sorry.

Intel did undertake a large and rather extraordinary effort to get their staff, and some say their families, out of Russia. Multiple sources say this was a bit of a mess, especially early on when the effects of the war were not clear to anyone and the pundits were all proclaiming it would be over soon. Many engineers were relocated, some chose not to go, and some changed their minds during the process. Things like this are never easy and some of the tales SemiAccurate heard only enhance that impression.

The next problem was where to move these engineers to?

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Globalisation and multi-country working is a great idea, until it isn’t. (Note that SemiAccurate tends to live up to its name, but Intel has longstanding R+D sites in Russia.)
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Extreme California heat knocks key Twitter data center offline • CNN Business

Donie O’Sullivan, Brian Fung and Sean Lyngaas:

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Extreme heat in California has left Twitter without one of its key data centres, and a company executive warned in an internal memo obtained by CNN that another outage elsewhere could result in the service going dark for some of its users.

Twitter, like all major social media platforms, relies on data centres, which are essentially huge warehouses full of computers, including servers and storage systems. Controlling the temperature in those centers is critical to ensuring the computers don’t overheat and malfunction. To save on cooling costs, some tech companies have increasingly looked to place their data centres in colder climates; Google, for example, opened a data centre in Finland in 2011, and Meta has had one centre in northern Sweden since 2013.

“On September 5th, Twitter experienced the loss of its Sacramento (SMF) datacenter region due to extreme weather. The unprecedented event resulted in the total shutdown of physical equipment in SMF,” Carrie Fernandez, the company’s vice president of engineering, said in an internal message to Twitter engineers on Friday.

Major tech companies usually have multiple data centres, in part to ensure their service can stay online if one centre fails; this is known as redundancy.

As a result of the outage in Sacramento, Twitter is in a “non-redundant state,” according to Fernandez’s Friday memo. She explained that Twitter’s data centres in Atlanta and Portland are still operational but warned, “If we lose one of those remaining datacentres, we may not be able to serve traffic to all Twitter’s users.”

The memo goes on to prohibit non-critical updates to Twitter’s product until the company can fully restore its Sacramento data centre services. “All production changes, including deployments and releases to mobile platforms, are blocked with the exception of those changes required to address service continuity or other urgent operational needs,” Fernandez wrote.

The restrictions highlight the apparent fragility of some of Twitter’s most fundamental systems, a problem Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former head of security who turned whistleblower, had raised in a disclosure sent to lawmakers and government agencies in July.

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The more we learn about Twitter’s internals, the more ramshackle it sounds. Sounds like the Edit button is delayed for a bit, anyway. And hot systems will be an ongoing problem.
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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: some people wondered in what sort of surgery you’d use obsidian scalpels. Some research suggests it’s where bones and cartilage aren’t nearby (because the blade can break easily from transverse force, which would leave obsidian flakes in the patient). Which means parts such as the eyes and earlobes. And yes, they are fine in autoclaves. Those are only steam, and obsidian has survived volcanic temperatures.

And yes, fine, glass is not a liquid, it’s a supercooled solid.

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