Start Up No.1992: tidal power’s climate problem, Apple (mostly) wins over Epic, Africa sours on web3, Snapchat’s AI fail, and more


In US schools, cheap Chromebooks have recently been very popular – but their short lifespan means their real cost is much higher, a new report says. CC-licensed photo by Virginia Department of Education on Flickr.

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There’s another post coming this week at the Social Warming Substack on Friday at about 0845 UK time. Free signup.


A selection of 10 links for you. Still going. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: https://newsie.social/@charlesarthur. Observations and links welcome.


Tidal power’s fickle future • Hakai Magazine

Doug Johnson:

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For tidal power generation, location is everything. To produce energy, tidal generators need fast currents or a sizable swing in sea level between high tide and low tide. The Bay of Fundy in Atlantic Canada, for instance, is an ideal candidate. Rising and falling by 12 meters, the bay has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world.

But a site’s currents and tidal range, and its potential for tidal power generation, is a complex consequence of myriad factors, including the basin’s width, length, and shape, the inflow from rivers, and the height of the sea. It’s this last variable—sea level—that threatens to throw a wrench in the world’s tidal power plans.

In a recent paper, scientists including Danial Khojasteh, a hydrodynamics expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, show how sea level rise could upend the viability of tidal energy in sites around the world, turning presently prime spots into duds.

Khojasteh and his colleagues came to this conclusion after modeling 978 different hypothetical estuaries with varying shapes, tidal ranges, and rates of sea level rise, among other factors. While none of the estuaries were based on real locations, they could “reasonably represent the geometries of many, many estuaries worldwide,” says Khojasteh.

Of their 978 theoretical estuaries, a total of 54 had currents fast enough to drive tidal turbines. This number dropped to 47 in simulations with one meter of sea level rise. With two meters of sea level rise, it fell to 40. Even in estuaries that did keep their tidal power potential, Khojasteh says that in some the actual spot within the estuary where the water was moving at the necessary speed moved around.

Sea level rise is “going to displace, eliminate, or create new optimal sites across the system,” Khojasteh says.

For those looking to install tidal power generating infrastructure—equipment designed to last for decades—this could be a problem.

«

Understatement of the year there. However tidal power keeps showing up as too expensive, even though it doesn’t suffer from the irregularity of wind or solar.
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Twitter Blue Thread: Newsletter Edition • The Mosquite Chronicles

“Mosquito Capital”:

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Super quick background: At Facebook, most product decisions were made only after careful A/B testing. This did stifle some creativity, but it also meant that catastrophic changes to the app were usually reverted before they ever made it past a few thousand users.

So. When you think about making changes to a massive system like Twitter or FB, you need to keep a few things in mind:

1) These are giant interconnected systems full of irrational, rational, adversarial, and opportunistic actors. The behavioral incentives are often very unintuitive and weird. Cascading unintended side effects are pretty much guaranteed any time you make a large change.

1.a) As a result of this, you have to be **very, very careful about the assumptions you make**. You can be the best and brightest, but at the end of the day there are just too many factors and feedback loops. What you expect to happen, and what will happen, are very different.

1.b) I cannot stress this enough. You can be the biggest brain genius, straight out of old Bell Labs or early Google or MIT or CERN or SpaceX or whatever, and you will *always* eventually be caught off guard by the behavior of these systems and the humans that use them.

«

There are another nine points, some also subdivided. It gets repetitive to say that Twitter is a super-complex system, and that Musk has no idea what he’s playing with, but — Twitter is a super-complex system, and Musk has no idea what he’s playing with. Just be grateful that failure there can’t actually do any active harm; it’s not as if it’s storing nuclear waste or running an intensive care unit.
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Apple declares victory after decision reached in Epic Games appeal • CNBC

Kif Leswing:

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Epic sued Apple after the game company introduced its own payment system into Fortnite, which broke Apple’s rules and ultimately got the company banned from the App Store. It culminated in a weekslong trial two years ago in California where Apple CEO Tim Cook and Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney testified.

Monday’s ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court affirmed the decision that primarily found Apple did not violate antitrust law by banning competing app marketplaces on iPhones.

Apple mostly won the initial court battle, with the judge finding that it did not monopolize any market.

However, the iPhone maker did lose one claim and had to allow developers to place links inside their apps so users could make purchases outside the App Store.

The appeals court did not overturn that decision, which was related to California law, and is the one claim that Apple says was not decided in its favor. Whether the company is forced to allow links to outside payments will be determined in possible future hearings.

Apple said in its statement that it was considering further action, which could include an appeal to the Supreme Court. Whether Epic Games will help pay Apple’s legal fees will also be decided at a lower court.

“Apple prevailed at the 9th Circuit Court,” Epic Games CEO Sweeney said in tweets sent after the decision. “Though the court upheld the ruling that Apple’s restraints have ‘a substantial anticompetitive effect that harms consumers’, they found we didn’t prove our Sherman Act case.”

“Fortunately, the court’s positive decision rejecting Apple’s anti-steering provisions frees iOS developers to send consumers to the web to do business with them directly there. We’re working on next steps,” Sweeney continued.

«

That key loss – obliging Apple to allow links to purchasing outside the App Store – could be big or could be small; look at how long and tediously Apple fought against dating apps in the Netherlands where it was required to do the same, and gave a mile, one inch at a time.
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School Chromebooks are creating huge amounts of e-waste • The Verge

Monica Chin:

»

Back in early 2020, as the covid pandemic drove classrooms online, school districts found themselves needing to bulk purchase affordable laptops that they could send home with their students. Quite a few turned to Chromebooks.

Three years later, the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund concludes in a new report called Chromebook Churn that many of these batches are already beginning to break. That’s potentially costing districts money; PIRG estimates that “doubling the lifespan of Chromebooks could result in $1.8bn in savings for taxpayers.” It also creates quite a bit of e-waste.

One of the big problems is repairability. Chromebooks are harder to upgrade and repair, on average, than Windows laptops. That’s in part, the PIRG found, because the replacement parts are much harder to come by — especially for elements like screens, hinges, and keyboards that are particularly vulnerable to the drops, jolts, jostles, and spills that come from school use.

For example, researchers found that nearly half of the replacement keyboards listed for Acer Chromebooks were out of stock online and that over a third cost “$89.99 or more, which is nearly half the cost of a typical $200 Chromebook.” Some IT departments, PIRG reports, have resorted to buying extra batches of Chromebooks just for their components.

“These high costs may make schools reconsider Chromebooks as a cost-saving strategy,” the report reads.

«

Will they, though? It’s not just Chromebooks cost less, it’s also that they’re more secure.
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April 13 1992: Labour’s Neil Kinnock resigns • BBC On This Day

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Neil Kinnock has resigned as Labour leader following the party’s defeat by the Conservatives in the general election three days ago. His deputy Roy Hattersley has also said he will step down.

Both men will continue in their positions until their successors are chosen in June.

In a sombre statement read out in the Shadow Cabinet room at Westminster, he pinned the blame on Labour’s demise firmly on newspapers sympathetic to the Conservatives.

He quoted former treasurer of the Conservative Party, Lord McAlpine, who said in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph: “The heroes of this campaign were Sir David English, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, Kelvin MacKenzie and the other editors of the grand Tory Press.”

Mr Kinnock gave this warning to the victorious Conservative Party – “This was how the election was won and if the politicians, elated in their hour of victory, are tempted to believe otherwise, they are in very real trouble next time.”

«

It’s edition 1992 of this collection, so here’s something from April 1992. Thanks Gavin W for the idea.
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The collapse of FTX affected Africa, too • Rest of World

Damilare Dosunmu:

»

Chiamaka, a former product manager at a Nigerian cryptocurrency startup, has sworn off digital currencies. The 22-year-old has weathered a layoff and lost savings worth 4,603,500 naira ($9,900) after the collapse of FTX in November 2022. She now works for a corporate finance company in Lagos, earning a salary that is 45% lower than her previous job.

“I used to be bullish on crypto because I believed it could liberate Africans financially,” Chiamaka, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym as she was concerned about breaching her contract with her current employer, told Rest of World. “Instead, it has managed to do the opposite so far … at least to me and a few of my friends.”

Chiamaka is among the tens of millions of Africans who bought into the cryptocurrency frenzy over the last few years. According to one estimate in mid-2022, around 53 million Africans owned crypto — 16.5% of the total global crypto users. Nigeria led with over 22 million users, ranking fourth globally. Blockchain startups and businesses on the continent raised $474 million in 2022, a 429% increase from the previous year, according to the African Blockchain Report. Young African creatives also became major proponents of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), taking inspiration from pop culture and the continent’s history. Several decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), touted as the next big thing, emerged across Africa.

Now, however, much of this buzz seems to be a thing of the past.

«

Don’t say you’re surprised.
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The Kraken Wakes: when games start talking back • Financial Times

Chris Allnutt:

»

In the poky, half-flooded offices of the English Broadcasting Company, a red telephone is ringing. You answer it. A woman’s voice asks anxiously, “Is anyone there?”

In any other game, you would expect her question to be followed by a series of dialogue lines for you to choose from, pre-written approximations of different approaches your character might take. “I’m here to help,” perhaps or, for the more abrasive, “What’s it to you?” But in The Kraken Wakes the text box is empty, waiting to be filled by you either through a headset or a keyboard.

An adventure game adapted from the 1953 John Wyndham novel of the same name, The Kraken Wakes is the latest beneficiary of Charisma’s revolutionary AI dialogue software. The British company has developed a platform capable of interpreting players’ custom contributions — however unpredictable or outlandish — and cleverly weaving them into the narrative in a way designed to feel natural.

And just as your input is entirely up to you, the responses you receive in return are dynamic too: some will pick up on keywords to deliver a range of scripted responses, but others harness OpenAI’s GPT-4 in order to fashion entirely original ones. It’s the first time the language model has been implemented in a game in this way, and it opens the medium up to a level of autonomy that was until now too time-consuming to tackle. ChatGPT may already be helping to secure undergraduate degrees around the world, but for game developers the technology’s full potential remains to be seen.

As a fledgling reporter for the EBC, you spend much of the game interviewing people (and I thought games were supposed to be escapist). When asked by an editor [in the game] what I liked to read, I replied: “Detective stories”. “Oh, mysterious. Perhaps you’re to become our in-house investigative reporter,” came the response. Several minutes later, I heard the editor reference my choice to another character.

«

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Security failures at TikTok’s Virginia data centers: unescorted visitors, mystery flash drives and illicit crypto mining • Forbes

Emily Baker-White:

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For years, TikTok has told lawmakers that the private data of its U.S. users is secured — and safe from potential influence or exfiltration — in a cluster of data centers located in Northern Virginia.

But interviews with seven current and former employees and more than 60 documents, photos and videos from the data centers reveal that the centers have faced security vulnerabilities ranging from unmarked flash drives plugged into servers to unescorted visitors to boxes of hard drives left unattended in hallways. Sources suggest that these challenges are the result of TikTok trying to grow its data storage capacity very quickly, and sometimes cutting corners along the way.

Documents, photos, and interviews also suggest that TikTok’s data center operations are still tightly enmeshed with ByteDance’s business in China. Among other suppliers, the data centers use servers produced by Inspur, a company that the Pentagon said in 2020 was controlled by the Chinese military and that the Commerce Department added to a sanctions list last month. Documents also show that as recently as last week, server work orders were sent to data center technicians by Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., Ltd., a ByteDance subsidiary partially owned by the Chinese government, which TikTok has repeatedly insisted has no control over its operations.

These revelations come at a critical moment for TikTok, which is facing a federal criminal investigation for surveilling journalists (including this reporter) and a threat from the Biden Administration that ByteDance must sell TikTok or face a full ban of the app in the US.

«

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Snapchat sees spike in 1-star reviews as users pan the ‘My AI’ feature, calling for its removal • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

»

The user reviews for Snapchat’s “My AI” feature are in — and they’re not good. Launched last week to global users after initially being a subscriber-only addition, Snapchat’s new AI chatbot powered by OpenAI’s GPT technology is now pinned to the top of the app’s Chat tab where users can ask it questions and get instant responses. But following the chatbot’s rollout to Snapchat’s wider community, Snapchat’s app has seen a spike in negative reviews amid a growing number of complaints shared on social media.

Over the past week, Snapchat’s average U.S. App Store review was 1.67, with 75% of reviews being one-star, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. For comparison, across Q1 2023, the Snapchat average U.S. App Store review was 3.05, with only 35% of reviews being one-star.

The number of daily reviews has also increased by five times over the last week, the firm noted.

Another app data provider, Apptopia, reports a similar trend. Its analysis shows “AI” was the top keyword in Snapchat’s App Store reviews over the past seven days, where it was mentioned 2,973 times. The firm has given the term an “Impact Score” rating of -9.2. This Impact Score is a weighted index that measures the effect a term has on sentiment and ranges from -10 to +10.

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Seems sub-optimal. Perhaps we don’t want AIs to chat to all the time.
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There is no AI • The New Yorker

Jaron Lanier:

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Many of the uses of A.I. that I like rest on advantages we gain when computers get less rigid. Digital stuff as we have known it has a brittle quality that forces people to conform to it, rather than assess it. We’ve all endured the agony of watching some poor soul at a doctor’s office struggle to do the expected thing on a front-desk screen. The face contorts; humanity is undermined.

The need to conform to digital designs has created an ambient expectation of human subservience. A positive spin on A.I. is that it might spell the end of this torture, if we use it well. We can now imagine a Web site that reformulates itself on the fly for someone who is color-blind, say, or a site that tailors itself to someone’s particular cognitive abilities and styles. A humanist like me wants people to have more control, rather than be overly influenced or guided by technology. Flexibility may give us back some agency.

Still, despite these possible upsides, it’s more than reasonable to worry that the new technology will push us around in ways we don’t like or understand. Recently, some friends of mine circulated a petition asking for a pause on the most ambitious A.I. development. The idea was that we’d work on policy during the pause. The petition was signed by some in our community but not others. I found the notion too hazy—what level of progress would mean that the pause could end? Every week, I receive new but always vague mission statements from organizations seeking to initiate processes to set A.I. policy.

These efforts are well intentioned, but they seem hopeless to me.

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I feel like Lanier has never seen a technology that he’s delighted by, and I’ve been reading his opinions for at least 30 years.
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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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