Start Up No.1890: Facebook’s Metaverse – good or bad?, UK aims to cap electricity pricing, the self-driving “scam”, K-Pop chat, and more

All the money Jeff Bezos spent on taking William Shatner to space didn’t pay off: Cpt Kirk felt “grief” and “sadness” at the vista. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

William Shatner: my trip to space filled me with sadness • Variety

William Shatner went up with Jeff Bezos:


As we ascended, I was at once aware of pressure. Gravitational forces pulling at me. The g’s. There was an instrument that told us how many g’s we were experiencing. At two g’s, I tried to raise my arm, and could barely do so. At three g’s, I felt my face being pushed down into my seat. I don’t know how much more of this I can take, I thought. Will I pass out? Will my face melt into a pile of mush? How many g’s can my ninety-year-old body handle?

And then, suddenly, relief. No g’s. Zero. Weightlessness. We were floating.

We got out of our harnesses and began to float around. The other folks went straight into somersaults and enjoying all the effects of weightlessness. I wanted no part in that. I wanted, needed to get to the window as quickly as possible to see what was out there.

I looked down and I could see the hole that our spaceship had punched in the thin, blue-tinged layer of oxygen around Earth. It was as if there was a wake trailing behind where we had just been, and just as soon as I’d noticed it, it disappeared.

I continued my self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into space. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years… but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.

I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.


Space tourism gets its first one-star Yelp review.
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Meta’s VR platform Horizon is too buggy and employees aren’t using it enough, says exec • The Verge

Alex Heath:


Meta’s VR social network Horizon Worlds — the company’s flagship “metaverse” app — is suffering from too many quality issues and even the team building it isn’t using it very much, according to internal memos obtained by The Verge.

In one of the memos to employees dated September 15th, Meta’s VP of Metaverse, Vishal Shah, said the team would remain in a “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year to “ensure that we fix our quality gaps and performance issues before we open up Horizon to more users.”

Horizon Worlds lets people build and interact in virtual worlds as legless avatars, sort of like Roblox meets Minecraft. It’s a key initiative following CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebranding of Facebook to Meta; the company is spending billions per year to build his vision of the metaverse. The multiplayer platform was released on Meta’s Quest headset in December of last year. It hit 300,000 users earlier this year and is supposed to be coming to mobile and desktop via a web version sometime soon, though Vishal’s memos imply a web launch could be pushed back.

“Since launching late last year, we have seen that the core thesis of Horizon Worlds — a synchronous social network where creators can build engaging worlds — is strong,” Shah wrote in a memo last month. “But currently feedback from our creators, users, playtesters, and many of us on the team is that the aggregate weight of papercuts, stability issues, and bugs is making it too hard for our community to experience the magic of Horizon. Simply put, for an experience to become delightful and retentive, it must first be usable and well crafted.”

…A key issue with Horizon’s development to date, according to Shah’s internal memos, is that the people building it inside Meta appear to not be using it that much. “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly,” he wrote to employees on September 15th. “Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”


Sounds bad. But: now read on.
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24 hours in the metaverse version of Facebook was surprisingly fun • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:


[The product manual] also said children under the age of 13 shouldn’t use the headset, while those over 13 shouldn’t use it for “prolonged periods,” because it could interfere with “visual development” and hand-eye coordination.

Wearing the headset, I thought I looked like a failed version of the future, but my 5-year-old was captivated. She begged to try my goggles. Eventually, I relented and let her play Bogo, a game in which she cared for a cute baby alien. After a few minutes, I tried to remove the headset, but she liked it so much that she ran away from me — and straight into a wall. (She was fine.)

Despite Meta’s warnings, every time I went into the metaverse, I inevitably ran into children. During one of my first visits to the Plaza, on a Monday afternoon in July, a guy in a gray blazer named Dustin excitedly told me that he had joined Horizon the day before and had spent eight straight hours there. He invited me to play a zombie-shooting game in a shopping mall. When tiny versions of the blocky, green zombies appeared, I exclaimed, “They’re little kids!”

“So am I,” he said, before adding, “Well, not that little.”

Dustin told me that he was 11, squarely in the camp of people whose brains were more threatened by the device than by the undead. As other journalists have discovered, there are tons of young people running around Horizon. On the upside for Meta, this means the company finally has a product that appeals to the generation that has largely rejected Instagram and Facebook. Though Horizon is an 18-and-over app, community guides told me that they kicked out only users younger than 13, and only if users explicitly revealed their age.

My headset notified me that its battery was low, and so I bade Dustin and the other players farewell. “Why don’t you plug and play?” one asked. I cringed at hearing a cutesy expression for a behavior that struck me as unhealthy. I resolved never to plug in my headset while it was attached to my head.

“Too ‘Matrix’ for me,” I joked, and then wondered if the young Dustin would understand the reference to a 1999 science-fiction movie about pale humans encased in goo and plugged into a simulated reality machine.


Hill recounts multiple excursions into the Metaverse. The presence of children is surprising, but they’re probably the ones who are going to find out what’s good and bad about it.
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UK looks to cap renewable electricity generator revenues • Financial Times

Nathalie Thomas and Jim Pickard:


Companies generating power from wind and solar fear the plans, similar to proposals already announced by the European Union, will effectively amount to a windfall tax on renewable energy.

The businesses involved in renewable power generation that could be affected include EDF Energy, RWE, ScottishPower and SSE. The government had been hoping to persuade electricity generators to agree voluntarily to 15-year fixed-price contracts well below current wholesale rates for their output.

But talks with the companies have collapsed and government legislation, which could be unveiled as early as next week, will be used to underpin a revenue cap on the generators, said people familiar with the plans. With UK households contending with soaring energy bills, the government indicated to generators at a private meeting last week that it would pursue a cap, said people briefed on the discussions.

People briefed on last week’s meeting said prices of about £50 to £60 per megawatt hour were mentioned as a starting point for the cap, well below current prices of about £490/MWh, although no final decisions have been taken.

…A “high percentage” or all of the revenues above the cap set by the government would be paid to the Treasury, added one of these people. The EU has announced a similar cap as part of plans to raise €140bn in windfall taxes.

Electricity generators fear the UK government’s plans will be more damaging to the sector than a 25% windfall tax imposed on oil and gas companies in May by the then chancellor Rishi Sunak.

His 25% “energy profits levy” was accompanied by a new investment allowance that energy companies can use to offset their tax bills if they press ahead with projects to boost UK production of fossil fuels.


Makes total sense, to be honest, but you can see that the renewables companies won’t like it.
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‘It’s a scam’: Even after $100bn, self-driving cars are going nowhere • Bloomberg via Autoblog

Max Chafkin:


“It’s a scam,” says George Hotz, whose company Inc. makes a driver-assistance system similar to Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot. “These companies have squandered tens of billions of dollars.” In 2018 analysts put the market value of Waymo LLC, then a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., at $175bn. Its most recent funding round gave the company an estimated valuation of $30bn, roughly the same as Cruise. Aurora Innovation Inc., a startup co-founded by Chris Urmson, Google’s former autonomous-vehicle chief, has lost more than 85% since last year and is now worth less than $3bn. This September a leaked memo from Urmson summed up Aurora’s cash-flow struggles and suggested it might have to sell out to a larger company. Many of the industry’s most promising efforts have met the same fate in recent years, including, Voyage, Zoox, and Uber’s self-driving division. “Long term, I think we will have autonomous vehicles that you and I can buy,” says Mike Ramsey, an analyst at market researcher Gartner Inc. “But we’re going to be old.”

Our driverless future is starting to look so distant that even some of its most fervent believers have turned apostate. Chief among them is Anthony Levandowski, the engineer who more or less created the model for self-driving research and was, for more than a decade, the field’s biggest star. Now he’s running a startup that’s developing autonomous trucks for industrial sites, and he says that for the foreseeable future, that’s about as much complexity as any driverless vehicle will be able to handle. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little,” Levandowski says in an interview. “Forget about profits—what’s the combined revenue of all the robo-taxi, robo-truck, robo-whatever companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it’s more like zero.”


Elon Musk insisted in 2015 that it would soon be a solved problem. Guess that’s another thing he was wrong about.
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Deaf or blind: Beethoven, Handel • The Sociological Eye

Randall Collins:


Beethoven started going deaf in his late 20s.  Already famous by age 25 for his piano sonatas, at 31 he was traumatized by losing his hearing. But he kept on composing: the Moonlight Sonata during the onset of deafness; the dramatic Waldstein Sonata at 32; piano sonatas kept on coming until he was 50. In his deaf period came the revolutionary sounds of his 3rd through 8th symphonies, piano and violin concertos (age 32-40). After 44 he became less productive, with intermittent flashes (Missa Solemnis, Diabelli variations, 9th symphony) composed at 47-53, dying at 56. His last string quartets were composed entirely in his head, left unperformed in his lifetime.

Handel went blind in one eye at age 66; laboriously finished the oratorio he was working on; went completely blind at 68. He never produced another significant work. But he kept on playing organ concertos, “performing from memory, or extemporizing while the players waited for their cue” almost to the day he died, aged 74.

Johann Sebastian Bach fell ill in his 64th year; next year his vision was nearly gone; he died at 65 “after two unsuccessful operations for a cataract.”  At 62 he was still producing great works; at 64 he finished assembling the pieces of his B Minor Mass (recycling his older works being his modus operandi). At death he left unfinished his monument of musical puzzles, The Art of the Fugue, on which he had been working since 55.

Can we conclude, it is more important for a composer to see than hear?

…My point is not the pathos of difficult lives, nor the triumph of overcoming it. Deaf or blind creators in different fields provide a natural experiment, evidence for what kind of the skill — including social skill– is the specific ingredient of creativity in music, and what are specific to other fields.

Music without texts (folk music and the like) is hand-to-ear coordination. With instrument ensembles, it becomes also hand-to-eye coordination.

Playing an instrument is a bodily skill; the whole body may go into the rhythm; the movements of fingers on strings and keys; of arms scraping bows over strings or beating drums; of fingers on stops and valves coordinated with lips and mouth and lungs that is the playing of wind instruments. Opera singers are trained players of their own body cavities and the tensing and relaxing of muscles. All this while keeping an eye on the score, or at least having memorized it. Complex music– AKA classical music — is the coordination of instruments and players: a social skill, a social invention. The symphony orchestra was no less an organizational innovation than a factory of workers operating machinery.

Participants in these humans-with-instruments combinations – composers, players – practice hand-to-eye-to-ear coordination. When composers are deaf, they can continue to coordinate hand-to-eye and thus generate the social follow-through that is music creation. When composers go blind, they mostly stop composing.


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K-Pop apps create the illusion of private messaging with celebrities • Nielsen Norman Group

Lillian Yang:


South Korean pop music, known as K-Pop, is one of the most popular music genres in the world. With catchy pop hits and intricate choreography, K-Pop groups such as BTS and Black Pink have attracted deeply dedicated fans from around the world.

Individual K-Pop group members are referred to as “idols.” Idols are known for their carefully developed public personalities, which are often strictly controlled by their music labels, because fans’ emotional attachments to individual idols are extremely profitable. Within the past few years, the industry has pioneered a new way to monetize fans’ emotional needs by creating dedicated mobile apps, such as Bubble and Universe, that simulate private messaging between idols and fans.

…Fans feel as though they are receiving a private message, written just for them, from their favorite idol. However, in reality, idols do not reply individually to each fan message. The goal is to make fans feel as if they have direct access to their favorite idols and thus strengthen their emotional attachment to these stars and increase profits.

The first instance of simulated private messaging appeared in the Bubble app, owned by the K-Pop label SM Entertainment. To chat with each idol, fans need to purchase a monthly subscription plan on the application’s STORE page — a blunt commoditization of idols’ time and attention.

After users pay to chat with a specific idol, a new private chat room is created and the fans start receiving the idol’s messages. Some artists text several times a day, while others just once a month. Idols typically send updates about what they are currently doing or thinking — for example, what they ate for lunch, selfies of their day-to-day life, and song recommendations. This content may seem mundane, but it helps fans feel as if they know the idol personally. Moreover, each idol seems to have a unique texting style — for example, some send longer text messages and others heavily use emojis. This consistency in the idol’s “personality” helps to persuade fans that it’s truly that person behind the screen.


An insight into a very weird world, where they’re happy to get a message, disappointed if it breaks the illusion somehow (by being out of context), yet quickly forget it and carry on.

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Virginians can pay new fee by the mile to boost gas tax • The Washington Post

Ian Duncan:


More than 7,000 Virginians have signed up to pay a fee for each mile they drive under a program launched this summer, putting the state at the forefront of a nationwide effort using new technology to prop up gas taxes that pay for roads.

The Virginia program, known as Mileage Choice, is aimed at drivers of electric vehicles and fuel-efficient cars who pay less in gas taxes while using the same roads as other drivers. Since 2020, Virginia has levied a fixed fee on those kinds of vehicles based on the difference between what they would have paid in gas taxes if driving an average number of miles.

In July, the state launched an alternative program to let drivers pay the fee at a per-mile rate — a cost savings for those who drive less than the average amount, which officials peg at 11,600 miles annually. For drivers of battery-powered cars, that fee works out to a penny per mile.

With the Biden administration aiming for half of new vehicle sales to be electric by the end of the decade, the federal government and states across the country are exploring such fees, seeing them as a way to ensure drivers continue to pay for the roads they use. The push is coming years after state and federal officials began to notice that increased fuel efficiency was denting transportation budgets funded by gas taxes.

Oregon and Utah have the nation’s longest-running per-mile programs, while other states have run pilots.


Not yet introduced in the UK, but as EVs become more common, it will surely be necessary – fuel duty tax generates a lot of money for the Treasury.
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United Airlines is aiming to have electric planes flying by 2030 • CNBC

Ian Thomas:


United has pushed heavily into a variety of lower-emission forms of aviation, not only announcing plans to buy electric air taxis and vertical aircraft, as well as hydrogen-electric engines but also investing in the companies behind the burgeoning technologies.

“We cannot continue doing and operating our business the way we do; it is imperative that we change it, and the way we’re going to change it is through investing in technology,” Mike Leskinen, United Airlines Ventures president, said in an interview as part of CNBC’s ESG Impact virtual conference on Thursday.

“Existing technology is going to either cause us to fly less, which is an unacceptable alternative, or continue with a carbon footprint, which we believe is equally unacceptable,” Leskinen said.

Heart Aerospace, which recently redesigned what will be its first electric aircraft which is now called the ES-30, plans to have the planes enter service in 2028, said Anders Forslund, the company’s CEO and founder.

The 30-passenger planes will be driven by electric motors with battery-derived energy, allowing the planes to have a fully electric range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). The planes will also include a reserve-hybrid engine powered by sustainable aviation fuel, allowing it to have an extended range of up to 400 kilometers with a full flight.


A whole 124 miles, you say? For 30 passengers? If only there were some sort of road-based transport with similar – or better – ranges capable of taking as many – or more – passengers. Perhaps it would be something on which the wheels go round and round.
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Scientists discover they can pull water molecules apart using graphene electrodes •


Writing in Nature Communications, a team led by Dr. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo based at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) [at the University of Manchester, England] used graphene as an electrode to measure both the electrical force applied on water molecules and the rate at which these break in response to such force. The researchers found that water breaks exponentially faster in response to stronger electrical forces.

The researchers believe that this fundamental understanding of interfacial water could be used to design better catalysts to generate hydrogen fuel from water. This is an important part of the U.K.’s strategy towards achieving a net zero economy. Dr. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo said, “We hope that the insights from this work will be of use to various communities, including physics, catalysis, and interfacial science and that it can help design better catalysts for green hydrogen production.”

A water molecule consists of a proton and a hydroxide ion. Dissociating it involves pulling these two constituent ions apart with an electrical force. In principle, the stronger one pulls the water molecule apart, the faster it should break. This important point has not been demonstrated quantitatively in experiments.

Electrical forces are well known to break water molecules, but stronger forces do not always lead to faster water dissociation, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. A key difference with graphene electrodes is that these are permeable only to protons. The researchers found that this allows separating the resulting proton from the hydroxide ion across graphene, which is a one-atom-thick barrier that prevents their recombination.


Seems encouraging? Graphene has long been one of those wonder materials that we just need to be able to make in large enough amounts for something amazing to happen.
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Why the US might not use a nuke, even if Russia does • Slate

Fred Kaplan:


The wargame’s scenario: Russia invades one of the Baltic countries; NATO fights back effectively; Russia fires a low-yield nuclear weapon at the NATO troops or at a base in Germany where drones, combat planes, and smart bombs are deployed. The question: What do US decision makers do now? (I describe this game, in greater detail, in my 2020 book, The Bomb.)

At first, the generals in the room discussed how many nuclear weapons the US should fire back, and at what targets. But then Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, raised his hand. You’re missing the big picture, he told the generals. Once Russia drops a nuclear bomb, we face a “world-defining moment”—an opportunity to rally the entire world against Russia, to isolate and weaken Moscow politically, economically, and militarily. However, if we fire back with nukes of our own, we would forfeit that leverage and, besides, normalize the use of nuclear weapons. So, Kahl suggested, we should continue and step up the conventional war, which we’re winning.

A few hours of discussion ensued about Kahl’s political calculus, the conventional strength of NATO, the uncertainty of where to fire a nuclear weapon anyway, and the additional uncertainty of whether a nuclear response would end the war any sooner or more successfully. A consensus emerged: The U.S. should respond just with stepped-up conventional military operations.

One month later, the NSC’s Principals Committee—the group of cabinet secretaries and military chiefs headed by National Security Adviser Susan Rice—played the same game. At one point, an official from the Treasury Dept. raised the same point that Kahl had at the Deputies’ Meeting, but he was shouted down, mainly by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who insisted that it was crucial to meet a nuclear attack with a nuclear response; the allies expect us to do this; if we didn’t, that would be disastrous for NATO, the end of all our alliances, the end of America’s credibility worldwide.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and the Secretary of Energy agreed with Carter. Antony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, who was sitting in for a traveling John Kerry, was undecided, saying he saw the logic on both sides.


Ironic but certainly true: if Russia fires a low-yield nuclear bomb, that means you are, or were, winning. (Things may have taken a bit of a reset at that point.) Which means your conventional approach is right. Now you just need to make Russia the utter paraiah. That’s the tricky bit.
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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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