Start Up No.1874: Google’s new AI questioned, Queen’s funeral stops planes, eSIMs aplenty, who’s got it in for Patreon?, and more


The world of tennis will soon wave goodbye to Roger Federer and his beautiful, fluid backhand. CC-licensed photo by Frédéric de Villamil on Flickr.


It’s Friday, so there must be a post at 0845 BST on the Social Warming Substack. Or sign up and get it in your inbox automagically!


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


Did GoogleAI just snooker one of Silicon Valley’s sharpest minds? • Gary Marcus

Gary Marcus:

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Winoground is a novel task and dataset [of 1,600 items] for evaluating the ability of vision and language models to conduct visio-linguistic compositional reasoning. Given two images and two captions, the goal is to match them correctly—but crucially, both captions contain a completely identical set of words/morphemes, only in a different order.

To show evidence of compositionality [understanding how the elements of a sentence relate to each other] on this task, a system needs for example, to tell the difference between “some plants surrounding a lightbulb” and “a lightbulb surrounding some plants”. This should be a piece of cake, but for currently popular systems, it’s not.

When Thrush and colleagues applied their benchmark to a set of recent models, the results were brutal: not one of the many models they tested did “much better than chance”. (Humans were at 90%)

But we all know how these things go; fans of neural networks are always pointing to the next big thing, racing to shot that this or that wall has been conquered. Word on the street is that Google’s latest, Imagen, has licked compositionality. Google would love that, “shock and awe” to frighten competitors out of the field, but, well …talk is cheap. Do they really have the goods?

A bona fide solution to compositionality in the context of systems that could learn from data on a massive scale, would certainly be big news; a real step forward in AI.

But many people have claimed over the years to solve the problem, and none of those systems have proven to be reliable; every proposed solution has been like Clever Hans, working in dim light, leveraging large databases to some degree, but falling apart upon careful inspection; they might get 60% on some task, but they never really master it. Notwithstanding the rumors about Google Imagen, nobody has yet publicly demonstrated a machine that can relate the meanings of sentences to their parts the way a five-year-old child can.

Because so much is at stake, it is important to trace out rumors. In that connection, I have repeatedly asked that Google give the scientific community access to Imagen.

They have refused even to respond.

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Marcus is extremely AI-sceptical, which makes this an important post to read: if you can’t refute it, maybe you are too.
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2004: Martina Navratilova on Roger Federer • The Guardian

The woman who won nine Wimbledon singles titles on the guy who, then, had just two:

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Federer would still be a magician even with a wooden racket. He’s got a very compact swing but he generates so much speed, and while he doesn’t look that strong, he has so much wrist action on the ball and gives it a little bit of extra spin.

Other guys are playing well against him, too, and he’s making them look silly. Players have no idea what’s coming because he can spin the ball this way and that; he can hit the ball flat; he can serve and volley, ghost in when you’re not expecting him or he can stay back. He’s got it all.

He’s like Martina Hingis with more power and more spins. I don’t know what it is about the Swiss, but they seem to produce some fantastic players.

I was lucky enough to play mixed doubles with him in Hong Kong at an exhibition in January this year. When they asked me if I wanted to play doubles with Roger, I asked, “great, how much do I have to pay you?”. It was a real treat because he was simply a joy to be on the court with. Then he asked me to practise with him and I got to hit for 45 minutes just one on one, which was phenomenal because I really got to feel how he hits the ball.

When he hits his forehand he can hook it so that he can go cross-court or down the line, tailing away from you because of all the topspin. He can hit a forehand cross-court so that it jumps at your body, which is effective on any surface but particularly on grass because it’s almost as though he’s inducing a bad bounce because he makes the ball jump differently and that’s what his kick-serve does as well.

He’s got spin on everything, he’s got a heavy slice that stays low, he can float the ball so that it stays low and just dies on the court so you have to create all the pace, or he can knife it so that it skids through. On his groundstrokes he can hit it harder or can hit a cross-court ball that looks like it’s going to be no problem until it suddenly takes off in the other direction after it bounces.

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It was reading this specific article that persuaded me to take an interest in tennis again, after I’d become bored by the crash-bang of Jim Courier (baseline) and then Pete Sampras (serve) for about 13 years. If Martina says someone is incredible, you listen to her. And no doubt: Federer had it all, including longevity because of the sumptuous biomechanical efficiency of his groundstrokes and movement. Now he’s retiring, after one last tournament next week. Nobody’s going to be as good to watch; he was the best since McEnroe, but Federer played a power game and made it look beautiful, not like someone battling a punchbag.
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Queen’s funeral: Heathrow cancels flights on Monday • BBC News

Katy Austin:

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Heathrow Airport has said about 15% of its schedule will be altered on Monday during Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral. This is to ensure the skies over London fall quiet during the events, it said.

There will be flight cancellations as a result, including 100 British Airways flights and four Virgin Atlantic flights. Separately, tens of thousands of passengers are set to be affected by a French air traffic control strike on Friday.

Among the cancelled flights will be many that fly over France, not just to and from the country.

Heathrow said that all takeoffs and landings on Monday will be delayed for 15 minutes before and after the two-minute silence at the end of the funeral. Following that, there will be no arrivals between 13:45 BST and 14:20 BST during the procession of the hearse, and no departures between 15:03 BST and 16:45 for the ceremonial procession via the Long Walk to Windsor Castle. Between 16:45 BST and 21:00 BST, departures will be reduced to support the committal service at St George’s Chapel.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued guidance which means that air passengers whose flights are cancelled or badly delayed on Monday because of Heathrow’s changes will not legally be entitled to financial compensation. That is because these are likely to be deemed extraordinary circumstances. However, airlines are offering customers refunds or re-bookings.

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Can you imagine how furious you would be if you’d got a holiday or similar booked for huge amounts and now you were being told a funeral had screwed it up and you weren’t actually entitled to any compensation at all? The idea that flights have to be outright cancelled, not delayed, astonishes me.
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The women starting unauthorized Shein boutiques across Mexico • Rest of World

Daniela Dib:

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In a small street in Chipilo, in the Mexican state of Puebla, rows of dresses, accessories, leggings, and bodysuits are neatly placed on the walls of a store run by Alejandra Précoma and her daughter Fátima. Though the store looks a bit like a thrift shop, all of the clothing on sale is brand-new, purchased from the Chinese fast fashion e-tailer Shein, a brand which also features in the name of the Précomas’ brick-and-mortar store: Shein Chipilo.

“We set up shop about a year ago and we’re getting there and doing quite well, thank God,” Précoma told Rest of World.

Précoma is not alone: all over Mexico, particularly in working-class areas, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on Shein’s cult-like following in the country, despite the company not having any official, permanent physical stores. They have built a network of shops dedicated to bulk buying, warehousing, and selling Shein products. By gaming a competitive fast fashion e-commerce industry that has put traditional retailers out of business worldwide, Mexico’s Shein boutiques are capitalizing on the lack of trust in digital businesses and low connectivity rates in large parts of the country.

Four Shein boutique in-store customers in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca told Rest of World why they prefer the in-store experience, even with the hassle of adding an extra step to an already streamlined delivery service: when in doubt about a particular item, or when having to deal with issues with a purchase, they all preferred to deal with a human rather than a faceless app.

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Not at all shocking, but nice to be reminded that people are still people after all.

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Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review: noise cancellation domination • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Bose has built its entire brand and reputation on noise cancellation technology. The company has been in this game for decades, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by how soundly the new QuietComfort Earbuds II outperform the competition in the ANC department. But after several days of testing them, that’s exactly where I find myself.

Until now, the original QuietComfort Earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM4, and Apple’s AirPods Pro were all within a stone’s throw of each other — and all very good. But Bose’s new $299 earbuds have raised the bar again — substantially. In various everyday situations, these are as good or better than over-ear noise-canceling headphones, and they’re obviously far more compact and portable.

The QuietComfort Earbuds II are still missing some increasingly important amenities like multipoint, and even wireless charging is absent. These oversights can make the high price harder to rationalize. But sound quality is excellent, and in addition to class-leading noise cancellation, Bose has managed to equal the natural, lifelike transparency mode of Apple’s AirPods Pro.

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The implication is that they’re great for airplane trips, though when I used to fly on planes I preferred over-the-ear headphones. More comfortable. The review makes clear though that this is a really competitive market now.
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Use eSIM while traveling abroad with your iPhone • Apple Support

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eSIM offers many benefits while you travel abroad. It’s more secure than a physical SIM because it can’t be removed if your iPhone is lost or stolen. With eSIM, you don’t need to obtain, carry, and swap physical SIM cards (which can also be lost), or wait for them to arrive by mail.

On your iPhone, you can store eight or more eSIMs, which will be there whenever you need them. You can have two eSIMs active on supported iPhone models at the same time. This could, for example, include one eSIM for your home and another eSIM for the place you’re visiting. You can swap which of your stored eSIMs are active simply by changing your selections in Settings. This might be helpful if you travel regularly to the same places.

Your carrier might also offer the ability to manage your eSIM plan digitally and add more data as needed.

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That’s pretty good: eight eSIMs. You can use at least one eSIM as well as a physical nano-SIM on any phone from the XS (2018) onwards. (Sorry, I don’t know how it goes for Android.) As I’m going to be on holiday in a place where my present network doesn’t do (cheap) roaming, this suddenly seems attractive.
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False allegations on social media • Patreon Blog

An unsigned writer at Patreon:

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Dangerous and conspiratorial disinformation began circulating on social media recently, alleging that Patreon has hosted child sexual abuse material (CSAM). We want to let all of our creators and patrons know that these claims are unequivocally false and set the record straight.

The disinformation stemmed from a single fraudulent claim on a job posting site, which onlookers inaccurately linked to small-scale staffing changes we made last week to our security organization. This has led to a conspiracy that Patreon knowingly hosts illegal and child-exploitative material.

First, let us be crystal clear: Patreon has zero tolerance for the sexualization of children or teenagers. We strive to keep our community safe on all fronts. We unequivocally forbid creators from funding content dedicated to non-consensual or illegal sexual themes and regularly review creators’ accounts to ensure creators behind adult campaigns are over the age of 18. We work with law enforcement globally and partner with world-class organizations including THORN and Safer technology, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and INHOPE because we are committed to keeping the Internet safer.

Second: The important responsibility of monitoring for illegal content in accordance with Patreon’s Community Guidelines lies with our Trust & Safety team, who takes that job very seriously. The security organization, in contrast, focuses on ensuring the safety of things like user and payment data on the platform. Recent changes we made to our security organization were designed to bolster security efforts through relevant in-house and partner expertise. Those vital efforts are completely unrelated to the Trust & Safety Team’s charter to keep the platform safe from harmful and illegal content.

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The “job posting” site seems to be Glassdoor? Though there’s a lot of stuff on Glassdoor too. However I’m not going to link to it, because the names don’t seem authentic. Something peculiar is going on.
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Netflix estimates ad-supported tier will reach 40 million viewers by late 2023 • WSJ

Suzanne Vranica and Sarah Krouse:

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Netflix estimated that an advertising-supported version of its streaming service would reach about 40 million viewers globally by the third quarter of 2023, according to a document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that Netflix shared with ad buyers.

Executives from Netflix and its advertising partner, Microsoft, have met with ad buyers in recent weeks, seeking to lock in deals ahead of a planned launch later this year.

In preliminary projections, Netflix told ad executives it expects to have 4.4 million unique viewers worldwide at the end of the year, with 1.1 million coming from the US. The company estimated that would grow to over 40 million unique viewers by the third quarter of 2023, with 13.3 million from the US.

Netflix’s projections for advertisers covered a dozen launch markets, including Brazil, Mexico, Japan, the UK, France, Germany, Korea, Spain, Italy, Australia and Canada.

The metric the company has shared, “projected unique viewers,” is expected to be higher than the number of subscribers for the advertising-supported Netflix plan, since more than one person in a subscribing household will likely be able to watch the service.

“We are still in the early days of deciding how to launch a lower priced, ad supported tier and no decisions have been made,” a Netflix spokeswoman said in a statement.

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Presently on 220 million subscribers (should guess that means 330-440 million viewers?). So it might add 10% to its global viewership. Is it going to do the same to its revenues, though? That’s not explained. And this is the first time I’ve seen the UK mentioned as one of the launch countries for advertising.
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Liz Truss to ditch Boris Johnson’s energy overhaul plans to focus on driving down cost of household bills • The i

Paul Waugh and Hugo Gye:

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Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told officials on Monday that he planned to effectively put on hold the Energy Bill currently going through the House of Lords, multiple sources said.

The legislation, part of Boris Johnson’s last Queen’s Speech, was wide-ranging and would have overhauled everything from carbon dioxide transport to carbon capture and civil nuclear power production.

But the bill, which is still at an early stage of its parliamentary process, now faces being scrapped or dramatically reworked after Downing Street stressed the Prime Minister wanted to prioritise capped bills and urgent reform of electricity markets.

No 10 is understood to be pushing for two big reforms. First, decoupling electricity prices from the global gas price – not least as renewable energy is now nine times cheaper than gas. [I think this means “gas is 10 times more expensive than renewable energy.”-CA]

The second change would be a move to “locational pricing” to incentivise the private sector to build extra capacity. The National Grid has argued that the switch would ease congestion in the UK’s transmission networks from energy-rich Scotland to energy-hungry England. Critics say a better solution is to invest in better infrastructure linking the two countries’ electricity networks.

…Mr Rees-Mogg surprised some industry sources last week when he signalled in a meeting that he wanted renewable energy rolled out at speed. One Government insider said: “He wants to go full throttle on the best prospects for renewable… offshore wind will be the biggest focus but supply needs to be increased everywhere.”

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The price decoupling essentially reverses part of the privatisation of the electricity generation/supply sector: rather than marginal pricing (the price of every unit is the price of the most expensive unit generated at that point), it might move to average pricing (the price of every unit is the average of all units being generated at that time).

Interesting too if Rees-Mogg, the Member for the 18th Century, has been persuaded of the benefits of renewables. Only need to fill in the gap with housing insulation.
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My former tutorial partner is now Prime Minister. Here’s my advice to her • Tim Harford

The aforesaid Harford:

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I don’t remember much about Liz Truss from studying mathematical logic alongside her at Oxford. I was too busy wrestling with Peano’s axioms; I suspect she felt the same. And I doubt she trembled to read the recent revelation in The Economist that, while the Conservative grassroots venerate her, the Liberal Democrats are targeting “the Tim Harford voter”. Truly, the narrative arc of my life story has taken a disturbing twist.

But what on earth does the Tim Harford voter actually want? After a few weeks of chewing it over, I’ve realised that if anyone is in a position to speculate, it must be me. Perhaps the best I can come up with is that the Tim Harford voter is worried that the very foundations of British policymaking seem to be shallow and prone to crack. The bad policies are just the clumsy fondant icing; it’s the cake itself that is rotting away.

Consider Brexit. It’s a foolish policy, to be sure, but much more than that. It was enabled by a vaguely worded referendum that was introduced by a prime minister who crossed his fingers and forbade preparation for the outcome. It was sold to the British people on false pretences. A member of parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered during the campaign. Three of the prime ministers leading the project — Cameron, May and Truss — voted against it, and the other, Johnson, was notoriously ambivalent. Ever since the vote, the process has been mired in vitriol, contempt and denial. One does not have to be a diehard Remainer to look at the entire decision-making process and fear that the British polity is not really up to the grown-up job of running a country.

What does the Tim Harford voter want when they look at this? First, a trivial-seeming thing: calm. We live in an age of outrage, sometimes justified and sometimes manufactured. But nobody ever thought more clearly because they were angry. Nor is outrage the only way to succeed at the political game. Proven winners from Blair to Merkel to Obama have thrived while trying to set a constructive tone.

Truss has been trying to provoke outrage, but judging from her infamous rant about how cheese imports are a disgrace, she is not very good at it. Perhaps she will decide that calm problem-solving suits her better.

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If you’ve ever heard Harford presenting the BBC’s More Or Less program, or his Cautionary Tales podcast, you’ll be familiar with his calm, inquiring voice. This whole blogpost is best heard with that voice in mind. (He does have an excellent presenting voice.)
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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: in passing, here’s what Stable Diffusion/Diffusion Bee produced for the text prompt “roger federer holds the gold trophy for winning the tennis title at Wimbledon“. No idea why there are two of him. Also, hands remain difficult. Plus, dig that watch!
Federer 4

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