Start Up No.1891: the end of futurism?, Truss v solar farms, Binance’s $570m hack, more ads on Instagram!, the rise of myopia, and more


Getting messaging apps to interoperate seems like a crazy demand. Yet Brazil’s banks managed it with Pix – and that exchanges real money. CC-licensed photo by Open Rights GroupOpen Rights Group on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Is it time to retire futurism? • TechTalks

Rich Heimann:

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Charles Perrault perfectly captures the emphasis futurists place on movement and speed. Perrault is one of the leaders of the so-called AI Speedometer for the AI Index project. While the AI Speedometer cannot explain what AI is or how to solve it, it tries to convince you that the rate of progress within artificial intelligence is significant enough to result in bigger achievements. However, the value of measuring speed when you don’t know the destination or how to get there is never worth the time and effort spent calculating it.

Before speed can be essential, friends of artificial intelligence need to agree on where they are, where they are going, and how good a given solution is for the disputed problem of intelligence. After all, knowing the speed of something is useless if you don’t know where you are, where you are going, the distance to travel, and the time that one must reach a destination—going fast or faster means next to nothing if you don’t know where to go, or how or when to arrive. When distance and time are known and fixed, but speed varies due to research hurdles, speed alone will not be enough to accomplish a goal no matter how fast one goes. Like futurism, the AI Speedometer is, in effect, saying, “We’re lost, but we’re making good time!”

Instructional frivolity aside, scientific knowledge doesn’t require a speedometer. Thomas Kuhn perfectly describes how scientific knowledge is developed, dispelling the progress myth. Scientific knowledge is not based on movement, speed, action, accumulation, or spawned on a specific day. Scientific discovery does not happen in straight lines or on paved roads. It only sometimes moves forward, and it is futile to identify the exact date when a paradigm shift occurs.

We don’t track progress toward solving the Riemann hypothesis or P=NP in computing because progress is zero until a breakthrough is achieved. Futurism distorts our senses by distorting our perception of time and progress.

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Definitely: progress is extremely non-linear. Let’s hope there is a sudden breakthrough just around the corner. In what, who knows.
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Ministers hope to ban solar projects from most English farms • The Guardian

Helena Horton:

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Ministers are planning to ban solar farms from most of England’s farmland, the Guardian can reveal.

The new environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, is understood to oppose solar panels being placed on agricultural land, arguing that it impedes his programme of growth and boosting food production.

To this end, say government sources, he has asked his officials to redefine “best and most versatile” land (BMV), which is earmarked for farming, to include the middling-to-low category 3b. Land is graded from 1 to 5, and currently BMV includes grades 1 to 3a. Planning guidance says that development on BMV land should be avoided, although planning authorities may take other considerations into account.

Currently, most solar farms are built on and planned for 3b land, so this move would scupper most new developments of the renewable energy source.

Extending BMV to grade 3b would ban solar from about 41% of the land area of England, or about 58% of agricultural land. Much of grade 4 and 5 land is in upland areas that are unsuitable for solar developments.

During her speech at the Conservative party conference last week, the prime minister, Liz Truss, reeled off a list of “enemies”, including green campaigners, who make up what she characterised as the “anti-growth coalition”. However, green campaigners say blocking the building of renewables would make her government part of such a group.

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Bit inconvenient if Truss herself turns out to be part of the anti-growth coalition, but this is consistent with her previous actions: in 2014, exactly eight years ago, she stripped farmers of subsidies for solar farms saying they were a “blight” pushing food production overseas.
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Brazil’s Pix is a great example for future messaging apps interoperability • Notes by Rodrigo

Rodrigo Ghedin:

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Pix began to be developed by the Brazil Central Bank in 2014 with an open model for dialogue, consisting of a discussion forum, working groups and even an open source repository on Github.

• In less than two years, almost 130 million (>50%) people and just over 11m companies have made at least one transaction with Pix
• This audience has created more than 500m “Pix keys” — shortcuts to facilitate Pix transfers. A Pix key can be a phone number, an email, a national ID (and its equivalent for companies), or a random number
• Close to BRL 1 trillion (~$200bn) was moved in 2.2bn transactions — the majority, 68%, between individuals (P2P).

It is true that Brazilian banks, despite all the power they have, shrink next to the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, such as Meta, Apple, and Google. Even so, they are really powerful and yet were all in. For all these reasons, Pix can be a reference to another conundrum that we face on a daily basis: the multiplicity of messaging applications.

In the first half of this year, the European Union advanced the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a new law created to curb the unbridled power of American big tech and restore competition in the sectors in which these companies operate.

Among other requirements, the DMA demands for interoperability between messaging apps made by big companies. iMessage will have to talk to WhatsApp, and both will have to talk to… whatever Google’s messaging app is at the moment.

It seems as unlikely as it was in Brazil until 2020 to transfer a few bucks, free of charge and instantaneously, between rival banks accounts on a Sunday night. Difficult? Certainly, but not impossible.

…For messaging, we need a “common language” that understands the basic functionality of this kind of app, such as exchanging messages, creating groups, and making calls. The rest — stickers, reactions, mini-apps, etc. — is up to each application. These would be the differentiators.

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Reflect on it: banking involves money, so it has to be encrypted and safe. Messaging doesn’t even involve money. It can be done, really.
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Binance blockchain hit by $570m hack • The New York Times

Ephrat Livni:

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Binance, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, confirmed on Friday that $570m had been stolen in a hack of a blockchain it runs that serves as a bridge for asset transfers between networks. The attack on the Binance Smart Chain network highlighted weaknesses in decentralized finance, or DeFi, where transactions are controlled by code.

“Software code is never bug free,” Binance’s chief executive, Changpeng Zhao, said in an interview with CNBC. He emphasized that no users had lost money in the hack but said that so-called cross-chain bridges were particularly vulnerable to hacks and the industry needed to get better at learning from them.

“We have seen a series of attacks on targeting vulnerabilities in cross-chain bridges,” Binance Smart Chain wrote in a blog post apologizing to users. “We will openly share the details of the postmortem and all lessons on how to implement more advanced security measures to shore-up these vulnerabilities.”

In August, the blockchain research company Chainalysis estimated that $2bn worth of cryptocurrency had been stolen in 13 cross-chain bridge attacks, mostly in 2022. In March, an attack drained $600m from a bridge behind the crypto-powered video game Axie Infinity. In February, $325m was stolen from the Wormhole network.

These exploits show that a reliance on code for control of DeFi platforms leaves these systems exposed, and that in emergency situations, decentralization can be an obstacle to quickly resolving issues.

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Does the day have a Y in it? Then there’s an attack against a blockchain system being plotted, planned or executed. Also, if users lost no money, who did?
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Instagram to increase ad load as Meta fights revenue decline • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Following another quarter that saw marketers pull back on their ad spending, Meta today announced it’s increasing its ad load on Instagram with the launch of two new ad slots. Amid a slew of product updates for advertisers, including a music catalog for advertisers and a new ad format for Facebook Reels, the company said it will now allow advertisers to run ads on the Explore home page and in profile feeds.

Meanwhile, though Instagram Reels began rolling out 30-second ads globally last year, followed by Reels ads on Facebook earlier in 2022, the new format now being tested will involve shorter ads on Facebook Reels, specifically.

Called “post-loop” ads, these 4- to 10-second skippable ads and standalone video ads will play after a Reel has ended. When the ad finishes playing, the Reel will then resume and loop again. Like TikTok, many Reels are designed to be watched more than once — but stuffing an ad at the end could see users instead choosing to scroll to a new video instead of watching the same one again. This is a risky move, as people will also likely consider this a poor user experience.

Meta also said it will test “image carousel” ads in Facebook Reels starting today. These are horizontally scrollable ads that can include anywhere from two to 10 image ads and are shown at the bottom of Facebook Reels content.

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Sounds awful. The good thing about Instagram’s adverts has always been that they’re well-targeted, but as there are more and more of them it’s inevitable that the quality gets worse and worse.
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Why short-sightedness is on the rise • BBC Future

Jessica Mudditt:

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While a family history of myopia raises the risk of a child developing it, a purely genetic case of myopia is rare, says Neema Ghorbani-Mojarrad, a lecturer at the University of Bradford in the UK and a registered optometrist.

Instead, lifestyle factors are thought to be more significant, in particular, a lack of time outdoors, and focusing on close objects for an extended period through an activity like reading. These factors help explain why one otherwise thoroughly positive trend in children’s lives has unintentionally worsened the spread of myopia: education.

Of course, education in itself – in the sense of discovering the world, and empowering oneself through knowledge and skills – does not cause poor eye health. In fact, education is associated with many positive, measureable health effects. But the way children obtain an education in the modern world, with the emphasis on long hours spent in classrooms, appears to be consistently hurting their eye health.

“Education has been shown to cause short-sightedness,” says Ghorbani-Mojarrad, referring to education as measured by school years. “We don’t know what it is about education – we suspect it is reading and spending more time indoors. Every year of education completed increases the expected amount of short-sightedness.”

Ghorbani-Mojarrad and his colleagues studied the effect of education, as measured by school years, on myopia, by investigating the impact of the UK’s raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16, in the 1970s. “There’s literally a bump in the chart for the extra year of school. Now that the leaving age is 18 in the UK, I wonder whether we will find the same thing again,” he says.

To understand this surprising link, it helps to parse how myopia develops in the first place. Most newborn babies begin life long-sighted. Within the first year of life, the eyes naturally develop and the long-sightedness reduces to the point of their vision becoming almost perfect. However, in some cases the eyes do not stop growing and short-sightedness develops. The eyeball is too elongated to be able to make out objects at a distance without the help of a corrective measure such as glasses.

“Everyone has a finite amount of retina, and if the eye continues to grow, it’s like trying to scrape the same amount of butter on a larger piece of bread,” says Ghorbani-Mojarrad. “The retina becomes really thin and is more prone to tearing.”

It appears that being indoors may worsen this problem, perhaps because of the way indoor lighting differs from natural light.

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Massive downturn in PC demand as worldwide shipments fall 18% in Q3 2022 • Canalys

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“Alarmingly, vendors, channel partners and other industry players began indicating in Q3 that commercial procurement, which had remained strong in the face of worsening economic conditions, had come under threat as IT budgets were being reprioritized or slashed,” said senior analyst Ishan Dutt. “Businesses are exhibiting greater caution by extending device refresh cycles as they weather the current uncertainty. A positive signal for the PC market had been the relatively robust employment and hiring numbers in major markets. However, indications that this could reverse will further diminish commercial demand as the need for new PCs drops off. Business investment also faces constraints as the cost of borrowing is set to continue rising with interest rate hikes planned throughout the next few quarters. Despite the current adverse environment, the importance of PCs to support new workstyles and digital transformation goals remains high. Older devices in the installed base will need to be replaced and the market is expected to see recovery by the second half of 2023.”  

Lenovo maintained pole position in the global PC market but suffered a 16% year-on-year drop to 16.9m units. For the second quarter in a row, HP underwent the largest decline out of the top five vendors as it posted 12.7m units, a 28% year-on-year fall. Both Lenovo and HP shipped their lowest totals since the onset of the pandemic in Q1 2020. Third-placed Dell also posted a significant decline of 21% in shipments, posting just under 12m units. Apple enjoyed a better quarter than its competitors as it fulfilled orders from Q2 delayed due to supply disruptions in China and launched new M2 Macbooks. It sealed fourth place with 8.0 million units, a modest year-on-year increase of 2%. Asus rounded out the top five with 5.5m units, an annual decrease of 8%.

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Basically takes the market as a whole back to pre-Covid levels, but with headwinds ahead. Apple was the only one to grow in a market that shrank dramatically: its market share hit (a record?) 9.3%.
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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA): searching for supply-side effects • Economic Studies at Brookings University

William Gale and Claire Haldeman analysed the effects of Trump’s 2017 tax-cut to see if its supply-side moves increased government revenue or GDP in the following two years:

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The revenue effects of TCJA should not be controversial, but leading advocates of the bill made what are essentially ludicrous claims in this regard. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed TCJA would “not only pay for itself but in fact create additional revenue for the government.” Former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he was “totally convinced [it was] a revenue neutral bill.”

In fact, the TCJA reduced revenues significantly, a conclusion reached by every credible analysis of the fiscal effects of the Act; see results from Page et al. (2017), Penn-Wharton Budget Model (2017), Tax Foundation (2017), Zandi (2017), Barro and Furman (2018), International Monetary Fund (2018), and Mertens (2018). The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation (2017) estimated that TCJA would lose almost $1.5 trillion in revenue between 2018 and 2027 ($1.1 trillion on a dynamic basis), including $416bn in 2018 and 2019. The Congressional Budget Office obtained similar numbers.

In 2018 and 2019, total federal revenue was $545bn or 7.4% lower than projected before TCJA (CBO 2020a). Relative to pre-TCJA projections, income tax revenue declined 6.9%, and corporate tax revenue declined by more than 37%. These declines are not the product of overly optimistic prior projections. If they were, payroll tax revenues, which were unaffected by TCJA, would have declined relative to pre-TCJA projections. But predicted and observed payroll tax revenue track very closely in 2018 and 2019. In contrast, Holtz-Eakin (2020) reflects that the decline of almost a third in corporate income tax receipts from FY 2015 to FY 2019 “was to be expected” given the tax cut.

III. Economic Growth A. GDP
The facts are straightforward. GDP grew at the same rate in the first two years after the tax cut as it had in the last two years before the legislation, but it grew faster (at 2.4% per year) than had been predicted under pre-TCJA baselines (1.7%). The interpretation of these facts is difficult for several reasons. First, the predicted impact of TCJA on GDP was fairly small—CBO (2018a) estimated the Act would raise GDP by 0.3% in 2018 and 0.6% in 2019 and reports several other groups’ estimates that are similar in magnitude—which makes detecting the impact more difficult.

Second, much of the short-term projected growth derived from increases in consumer spending but consumption growth actually declined in 2018 and 2019 relative to 2016 and 2017 (Figure 2).

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Perhaps someone could print this out and sneak it into Kwasi Karteng’s in-tray.
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‘The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash’—or just on a roller coaster • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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On a sunny September Sunday, Sara White and her family headed to Kings Island amusement park outside Cincinnati. 

The 39-year-old dentist zipped her two-day-old iPhone 14 Pro securely in her fanny [For British readers: bum – Ed.] pack, buckled into the Mystic Timbers roller coaster and enjoyed getting hoisted 109 feet in the air and whipped around at over 50 mph.

Afterward, she looked down at her phone. The lock screen was lined with missed calls and voice mails from an emergency dispatcher asking if she was OK.

During the ride, Apple’s new car-crash detection triggered and automatically dialled 911. The call to the Warren County Communications Center featured an automated voice message from Ms. White’s iPhone: “The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash and is not responding to their phone.”

The message is repeated seven times during the call. As the phone made the call and played the automated message, it also picked up background audio from the scene—in this case cheers, music and other amusement-park sounds.

According to the 911 report, a team was sent to the ride but didn’t locate an emergency. When Ms. White realized what happened—ironically, when in line for the bumper cars—she called back the number to tell them she was OK. 

On one hand, it’s funny—especially when you consider that I flew to Michigan, hired a demolition-derby driver and totaled some cars so I could test the feature with the new iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Series 8, Ultra and SE. You know what would have been a lot easier? Driving to Six Flags in New Jersey!

On the other hand? There is nothing funny about busy emergency-services workers—and in some cases friends and family—accidentally being alerted to a tragedy that never happened.

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The roller coasters seem to trigger this not during the wild up and down, but the stop at the end, which can be abrupt. Apple says it will keep working on the algorithms that detect this. People who have had the phone make calls for them seem reassured: it proves it works. Even a motorcyclist whose phone was knocked off the handlebars, and which then called and messaged all and sundry about the calamity, felt happy about it.

(You can turn Crash Detection off in Settings. Maybe next time you’re on a roller coaster…)
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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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