03 July 2022

Bloomberg: “Larry Ellison’s Lanai isn’t for You—or the People who live There”

On one hand, Ellison’s wealth means he can invest more in the community than Murdock did. He’s renovated the pool and the movie theater, and he kept much of the island on payroll for months during the pandemic. On the other hand, his control has steadily tightened. Since the purchase, he’s bought up dozens more homes and businesses, including the island’s main grocery store and its lone gas station, community newspaper, and non-Four Seasons hotel. Ellison’s development plans tend to be secretive. Most locals have only heard that he intends to make the island “sustainable”, with little explanation of what that might mean.

Most of the more than 30 Lanai residents interviewed for this story say that because there are no real alternatives to Ellison’s control, his decisions carry the force of law, with a minimum of discussion and hardly any due process. Lanai’s small businesses are sputtering, and even by US standards, the island’s housing shortage is extreme. There’s only one home for sale as of early June: a beachfront estate for $7.9 million. The median household income is $59,000, but it appears to be climbing as richer residents move in. Locals whose families have lived on the island for generations, often sharing homes with parents and grandparents, are leaving as Ellison’s construction workers and Four Seasons employees fill practically every available bed.

Sophie Alexander

A fine example of extreme income inequality and how it can distort society away from democracy and back towards a feudal-like system. An immensely wealthy lord and his ‘noble’ guests and peers having near-absolute control over his estate, while the people living there must comply with his rules, or face eviction, unemployment, and eventually leaving the island. The American system is weirdly geared towards this outdated organization, with health insurance dependent on the employer and their fascination of celebrities and mega-corporations, some going as far as imagining a world where corporations replace the government as providers of basic services, everything from health insurance to transportation and housing. Apparently, they never stopped to wonder what would happen to those services when employees get laid off, as it is frequently happening during economic depressions.

30 June 2022

Rest of World: “Just 2% of Starlink users live outside of the West, data suggests”

In June 2021, Elon Musk claimed that Starlink would span the globe within months. But nearly a year later, the service has, with a few exceptions, been exclusively made available in North America, Europe, and Australia. The issue of refunds to the waiting list in India is the latest in a series of stumbling blocks that have prevented Starlink from bringing the internet to the hardest-to-reach places on Earth.

SpaceX has pushed back rollouts in massive markets like South Africa, where, at the end of last year, the expected date for Starlink service to become available was delayed from 2022 to 2023, with no explanation. Last month, Starlink surpassed 250,000 subscribers across 25 countries. But according to Cloudflare and self-reported statistics on Reddit, nearly 80% of users to date are located in North America, with another 18% in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Just 2% of Starlink users live in the rest of the world. Although many of the delays come down to regulatory challenges, it’s also unclear whether the service is prioritizing existing markets or growing new ones.

Meaghan Tobin

Hardly surprising (and not just because of Musk’s inclination for making exaggerated claims). The service itself is not yet reliable enough (if it gets confused by a lone tree, I doubt it would fare better in the rainforest or in Himalayan valleys), and too pricey for most individual customers outside developed countries. The early adopters in North America were probably swayed more by the Musk aura than the practical benefits of having satellite internet.

29 June 2022

The New York Times: “Putin’s Threats highlight the Dangers of a New, Riskier Nuclear Era”

When satellite images began showing new intercontinental ballistic missile silos being dug on the edge of the Gobi Desert last year, it set off a debate in the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies about what China’s leader, Xi Jinping, intended, especially at a time when he appeared to be steering toward a confrontation over Taiwan.

The simplest theory is that if China is going to be a superpower, it needs a superpower-sized arsenal. But another is that Beijing recognizes that all the familiar theories of nuclear balance of power are eroding.

China is heralding a paradigm shift to something much less stable, Mr. Krepinevich wrote, a tripolar nuclear system.

Everybody’s scurrying for a nuclear umbrella and, if they can’t get that, thinking about getting their own weapons, said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks the spread of nuclear arms.

He called the Middle East prime territory for further atomic ambitions. As Iran has inched toward a bomb, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have talked publicly about the possibility of matching whatever Tehran does.

David E. Sanger & William J. Broad

A riskier nuclear era indeed… Regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the Middle East is seemingly heading towards a nuclear arms race, edged forward by rising global instability and the failures of Presidents Trump and Biden to maintain a consistent policy towards Iran (the ‘Obama doctrine’ in regards to Syria hasn’t helped matters one bit).

28 June 2022

Reuters: “Amazon has a plan to make Alexa mimic anyone’s voice”

Amazon.com Inc wants to give customers the chance to make Alexa, the company’s voice assistant, sound just like their grandmother – or anyone else.

The online retailer is developing a system to let Alexa mimic any voice after hearing less than a minute of audio, said Rohit Prasad, an Amazon senior vice president, at a conference the company held in Las Vegas Wednesday. The goal is to make the memories last after so many of us have lost someone we love during the pandemic, Prasad said.

Amazon declined to share when it would roll out such a feature.

Jeffrey Dastin

It’s one thing to make the memories last, and quite another to constantly stir up feelings of loss and grief after the death of people we loved, and I feel quite strongly that this ‘feature’ lands squarely in the latter category. The potential for abuse through misinformation and ‘deep fakes’ is very high as well – imagine receiving a phone call with a faked voice to mimic someone you trust (and very much alive). Some restraint and more consideration for inadvertent consequences would be in order when developing technologies such as these, even if the company doesn’t have a plan for their public release yet.

25 June 2022

The New York Times: “A Mini-Russia Gets Squeezed by War”

Transnistria has managed to avoid choosing sides while following its own system. It is still technically part of Moldova, but it lies outside Moldovan government control. It prints its own money (the Transnistrian ruble), flies its own flag, sings its own anthem and runs an industrial economy supporting around 300,000 people.

It does all of this thanks to billions of dollars in subsidies from its benefactors in Moscow, which in return gets a strategic enclave at the edge of the European Union where it bases at least 1,500 troops.

It would be stupid for Russia to try to use this against Ukraine, and the Ukrainians know it, said Anatoly Dirun, a Transnistrian political scientist and opposition politician.

He said that Ukraine and Russia were pumping up the threat to Transnistria for their own, different reasons.

Russia is trying to draw Ukrainian troops away from the battle in the east. And Ukraine is trying to paint a picture of a spreading war so the West sends more weapons.

This is all noise, Mr. Dirun said.

He and others said that Russia could not easily fly reinforcements into Transnistria even if it wanted to because the planes would have to cross Ukrainian or European airspace, putting them at risk of being shot down.

Jeffrey Gettleman

The hostilities in Ukraine have brought attention to a long-ignored territorial dispute between it and Moldova, the region of Transnistria, another relic of the dissolution of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. The article itself is not very substantial, but it made me think how different recent history could have been for Romania if we reunited with Moldova at the end of the Cold War, as Germany did: this Transnistria issue would have plagued our accession negotiations with NATO and the European Union, and Romania would most likely never have been admitted into NATO at least.

24 June 2022

CNBC: “Mark Zuckerberg envisions 1 billion people in the metaverse”

We hope to basically get to around a billion people in the metaverse doing hundreds of dollars of commerce, each buying digital goods, digital content, different things to express themselves, so whether that’s clothing for their avatar or different digital goods for their virtual home or things to decorate their virtual conference room, utilities to be able to be more productive in virtual and augmented reality and across the metaverse overall, he said.

But the company’s investment in augmented reality and virtual reality dates back to 2014, when it paid $2 billion for headset maker Oculus VR. Shipments of headsets have failed to outnumber shipments of PCs or smartphones. Zuckerberg expressed optimism about the performance of its current-generation Meta Quest 2, which starts at $299.

Quest 2 has been a hit, Zuckerberg told the “Mad Money” host.

I’ve been really happy with how that’s gone. It has exceeded my expectations. But I still think it’s going to take a while for it to get to the scale of several hundreds of millions or even billions of people in the metaverse, just because things take some time to get there. So that’s the north star. I think we will get there. But, you know, the other services that we run are at a somewhat larger scale already today.

Experiences in the metaverse can be more immersive than text, photos or videos, which are pervasive on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, and so it will be a big theme for Meta over the next decade, Zuckerberg said.

Jordan Novet

Mark Zuckerberg is nothing if not committed to this plan, I’ll give him that.

23 June 2022

Fortune: “Elon Musk’s regulatory woes mount as U.S. moves closer to recalling Tesla’s self-driving software”

On Thursday, NHTSA said it had discovered in 16 separate instances when this occurred that Autopilot aborted vehicle control less than one second prior to the first impact, suggesting the driver was not prepared to assume full control over the vehicle.

CEO Elon Musk has often claimed that accidents cannot be the fault of the company, as data it extracted invariably showed Autopilot was not active in the moment of the collision.

While anything that might indicate the system was designed to shut off when it sensed an imminent accident might damage Tesla’s image, legally the company would be a difficult target.

All of Tesla’s current autonomous features, including its vaunted Full Self-Driving tech, currently in beta testing, are deemed assistance systems in which the driver is liable at all times rather than the manufacturer.

Christiaan Hetzner

It sure looks as if Tesla designed Autopilot to shut off immediately before an impact so the company can deny its software was at fault and evade legal liability…