28 February 2021

Internationale Politik Quarterly: “Von der Leyen’s Not-So-Geopolitical Commission”

These two embarrassments, coupled with a vaccination roll-out slower than in the UK and US (though faster than most developed countries) and an ongoing inability for the EU to stop the dismantling of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, has prompted the renewal of an all-too-familiar narrative in the Anglo-American media: an EU facing the most serious crisis in its history. This, of course, is an absurd exaggeration—particularly given the euro crisis a decade ago. But it’s not an exaggeration to say the EU seems to be failing to meet the expectations it set itself to transform into a more geopolitically powerful entity.

The problem is that while leaders like Macron have tasked the Commission to make the EU more geopolitically strong, he and others still refuse to give the Commission the tools that would make it strong. For the last decade, the European Council has consistently opposed measures that would strengthen the Commission, because it would mean diluting the power of national governments. And they have purposefully put weak people into positions of power in Brussels, then expressed surprise when the outcomes were weak.

Dave Keating

This article reminded me of a scene from the excellent TV series Borgen, where top Danish politicians planned to remove a competitor from their own party by… assigning him a position at the European Union! That series was filmed around a decade ago, so the problem seems as old as the European Union, and still unresolved.

27 February 2021

Scientific American: “Until recently, People accepted the ‘Fact’ of Aliens in the Solar System”

In other words, in many quarters there was no “are we alone?” question being asked, instead the debate was already onto the details of how the life elsewhere in the cosmos went about its business.

In the 1700s and 1800s we had astronomers like William Herschel, or the more amateur Thomas Dick, not only proposing that our solar system, from the Moon to the outer planets, was overrun with lifeforms (Dick holding the record by suggesting that Saturn’s rings held around 8 trillion individuals) but convincing themselves that they could see the evidence. Herschel, with his good telescopes, becoming convinced that there were forests on the Moon, in the Mare humorum, and speculating that the Sun’s dark spots were actually holes in a glowing hot atmosphere, beneath which, a cool surface supported large alien beings.

Even though we might question some of their scientific standards, people like Herschel and Dick were indeed following the philosophy of life being everywhere, and elevating it to the level of any other observable phenomenon. Herschel was also applying the best scientific instruments he could at the time.

Caleb A. Scharf

The debate around the existence of extraterrestrial life has been reignited recently after the Israeli astronomer Avi Loeb doubled down on his hypothesis that the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua is in fact a light sail transiting our solar system. There is little hard evidence to support such a claim, and to me this resembles a publicity stunt to promote other projects he is involved in, such as Breakthrough Starshot.

26 February 2021

ProPublica: “Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs silenced an Enemy of Turkey to prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business”

The conversations, among other internal emails obtained by ProPublica, provide an unusually direct look into how tech giants like Facebook handle censorship requests made by governments that routinely limit what can be said publicly. When the Turkish government attacked the Kurds in the Afrin District of northern Syria, Turkey also arrested hundreds of its own residents for criticizing the operation.

Publicly, Facebook has underscored that it cherishes free speech: We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend these values around the world, the company wrote in a blog post last month about a new Turkish law requiring that social media firms have a legal presence in the country. More than half of the people in Turkey rely on Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family, to express their opinions and grow their businesses.

But behind the scenes in 2018, amid Turkey’s military campaign, Facebook ultimately sided with the government’s demands. Deliberations, the emails show, were centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights.

Jack Gillum & Justin Elliott

Timely article, considering the recent fight between Facebook and Australian legislators over the local news business. Another piece of evidence, in a long string of incidents, highlighting how the leadership makes decisions and how willing they are to discard principles when the business is at stake. To Facebook, free speech is nothing more than a catchy phrase inserted into PR statements to appease the American public. The company can block entire countries or political movements with the flip of a switch, but by all means, let’s freak out over the death of the open web whenever a country plans to introduce a new tax on Facebook!

25 February 2021

Li’s Newsletter: “Building the Middle Class of the Creator Economy”

Ever since Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson first published his “Long Tail” theory in 2004, the idea has been endlessly reinforced, contradicted, and debated. He argued that the internet’s removal of physical limitations (local audiences, scarce shelf space) would empower niche products and creators to flourish.

In the search category, the phenomenon has proven true: Google has revealed that on a daily basis, 15% of all queries have never been searched before, a figure that has remained stable since 2013.

But for content platforms, the move to digital content hasn’t been correlated with a burgeoning long tail: the top creators are massively successful, while long-tail creators are barely getting by. On Spotify, for instance, the top 43,000 artists—roughly 1.4% of those on the platform—pull in 90% of royalties and make, on average, $22,395 per artist per quarter. The rest of its 3 million creators, or 98.6% of its artists, made just $36 per artist per quarter.

A 1981 paper by Sherwin Rosen, an economist at the University of Chicago, offers a prescient explanation of how the “superstar phenomenon” would become more pronounced as a result of technology. Rosen argued that in markets with heterogeneous providers, like most creator economies, success accrues disproportionately to those on top: lesser talent often is a poor substitute for greater talent […] hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance. This phenomenon is further exacerbated by technology which lowers distribution costs: the best performers in a given field are freed from physical constraints like the size of concert halls—and can address an unlimited market and reap a greater share of revenue.

Li Jin

Interesting topic, followed up with many good proposals for combating this concentration at the top of the creator economy. This issue is equivalent to income inequality in a national economy, and some of the solutions are similar: a better distribution of incomes by platforms, including decoupling creator payouts from audience demographic, diversifying the sources of revenue and creating passive income opportunities. Other measures remind me of the roles of music labels for musicians, subsidizing artists’ early steps with advances and providing support and guidance at the start of their careers. Financial incentives for people looking to become creators may be one of the most important steps, as it allows newcomers to focus on developing their products instead of constantly worrying about income.

ProPublica: “The Big Thaw: How Russia could dominate a Warming World”

A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

The lyrics to Russia’s modern anthem suggest that at least some of its leaders have anticipated this moment: Wide spaces for dreams and for living are opened for us by the coming years. As if to fulfill that vision — and perhaps with the expectation of needing more land to execute his climate ambitions — Vladimir Putin declared in 2013 that the remaking of Russia’s East is our national priority for the entire 21st century, and that the goals that have to be attained are unprecedented in their scope. In laying out that ambition, he surely had history in mind. There was the outpost Russia built at the Sea of Okhotsk in the 1700s; efforts to drive out Chinese settlers of the Qing dynasty in the 1800s; the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which ultimately brought as many as 40,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews to the area around Birobidzhan, in 1934; and even the longstanding banishment of workers and prisoners alike to Siberia and the Far East under Stalin and afterward.

Abrahm Lustgarten

While most countries are bracing for the damaging effects of global warming, or are already struggling with extreme heat or extreme cold events, Russia is making long-term plans to benefit from this warming trend. It controls after all the largest land area in the world and one of the least populated, which could become a prime destination for tens of millions of climate refugees in coming decades, and a huge food producer for those staying behind. The thinning ice in the Arctic is already allowing icebreakers to sail the Northern Sea Route in the middle of winter, opening huge commercial opportunities for Russian ports in the far north. In upcoming negotiations to agree upon global mitigation measures and stricter targets for emissions, Russia may prove the most stubborn opposer of coordinated actions.

24 February 2021

Wired UK: “Facebook’s Australia news ban is the best decision it’s ever made”

But there’s a trickier tangle that taxation alone won’t unpick. For many, Facebook and Google are part of the mythical “open web” – one where hyperlinks can be freely posted on any website. That makes sense on, say, Wikipedia, but it does not make sense on Facebook and Google which, despite their scale and mission statements, are essentially closed advertising ecosystems. Sure, news organisations can choose to post articles and videos on Facebook. And in return, people on Facebook may play those videos and click on those links. Rarely, they might click on an advert on the news organisation’s website or pay to subscribe to that publication. Or, if you’re the Epoch Times, you can game Facebook’s engagement algorithm to transform yourself from a low-budget far-right newspaper founded by an obscure Chinese spiritual movement into one of the most-read publications on the planet. If Facebook prioritised social wellbeing over engagement, this wouldn’t have happened.

For years it has been clear that the web, which has been shaped in Facebook and Google’s image, is in no way open. Facebook is not a social network. Google is not a search engine. They are an advertising duopoly. In the US, more than half of advertising spend now goes to big digital platforms. In the UK, Amazon, Facebook and Google account for almost 70 per cent of digital advertising spend. If Facebook doesn’t want news on its platform, that’s Facebook’s prerogative. If Google wants to hand giant wads of cash to Rupert Murdoch to secure deeply troubling pay-to-play deals, that’s Google’s prerogative. It’s an irresistible tug-of-war: there would be no Facebook or Google without the terabytes of stuff we shout into the void every hour of every day. And yet, without Facebook and Google, there would be no void to shout into.

James Temperton

Almost six months after issuing the threat, Facebook followed through and blocked links to Australian news sites, not only in the country, but globally. The decision was reversed this week, as the two sides continue to negotiate in the coming months.

23 February 2021

The New York Times: “Pfizer’s vaccine works well after one dose, and doesn’t always need ultracold storage”

Although regulators in the United States have held fast to the requirement that people receive two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine three weeks apart, the British government decided to prioritize giving as many people as possible an initial dose, allowing delays of up to 12 weeks before the second dose. The Israeli study could bolster arguments for emulating that approach in other countries.

Published in The Lancet on Thursday and drawing from a group of 9,100 Israeli health care workers, the study showed that Pfizer’s vaccine was 85 percent effective 15 to 28 days after receiving the first dose. Pfizer and BioNTech’s late-stage clinical trials, which enrolled 44,000 people, showed that the vaccine was 95 percent effective if two doses were given three weeks apart.

Katie Thomas

Another study being passed around as proof that regulators should delay the second vaccine dose to offer more people partial protection, because a single dose is supposedly enough. I have quickly skimmed through the study, but there are obviously several issues with this conclusion:

22 February 2021

The New York Times: “Apple TV was making a Show about Gawker. Then Tim Cook found out.”

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China, one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to avoid portraying China in a poor light.)

The Wall Street Journal also reported in 2018 that Mr. Cook personally killed a Dr. Dre biopic because there was too much violence and nudity, and that the company had asked the director M. Night Shyamalan to keep crucifixes off the walls in his thriller “Servant.”

And Apple’s willingness to sacrifice creative freedom for corporate risk management is still an outlier. None of my reporting suggests that Mr. Bezos is reaching into Amazon’s studio (or The Washington Post) to kill negative depictions of either e-commerce or the police, or that Mr. Stankey is ostentatiously slipping AT&T routers into “Lovecraft Country”. The question, of course, is how long, even at those companies, the old law will be suspended — that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Ben Smith

Apple has struggled for years with several TV initiatives, none of which have enjoyed the same success as many of its other products. This January, the company has further extended the Apple TV+ free trials until the end of July, a telling sign of lackluster consumer interest.

Politico: “US won’t share vaccine before all Americans receive shots, officials say”

The Biden administration won’t donate to poor countries any of the coronavirus vaccine doses the U.S. has purchased before most Americans are vaccinated, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.

The comments come one day before Biden will join the G7 virtual meeting, where leaders of major industrialized nations are set to address anxiety over a global vaccine rollout that’s left behind poor countries.

President Joe Biden at the meeting — his first multilateral engagement since taking office — will announce the U.S. is directing $4 billion Congress allocated to Gavi in December to help procure coronavirus vaccines for poor countries, the senior official said.

Carmen Paun

The ‘America first’ mentality lives on, even after Trump is no longer US President. His executive order from December to prioritize domestic inoculations is still in place, and President Biden shows no intention of repelling it. The funding for Gavi was approved before Biden was sworn into office, so claiming merit for this measure is hypocritical at best, and inadequate at worst. This effective vaccine export ban in the US also raises the prospect that the US may refuse to release doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the European Union, because the company has insisted that the final manufacturing stages take place in the US.

20 February 2021

Reuters: “Police seize $60 million of bitcoin! Now, where’s the password?”

German prosecutors have confiscated more than 50 million euros ($60 million) worth of bitcoin from a fraudster. There’s only one problem: they can’t unlock the money because he won’t give them the password.

The man was sentenced to jail and has since served his term, maintaining his silence throughout while police made repeated failed efforts to crack the code to access more than 1,700 bitcoin, said a prosecutor in the Bavarian town of Kempten.

John O’Donnell

A hacker illegally mines Bitcoin by installing malware on more than 300.000 computers, gets caught and convicted, but the resulting coins are inaccessible because the authorities confiscated the wallet and the fraudster won’t disclose his password (if he even remembers it)… Apparently it’s a perfect standoff: if he tries to replicate the wallet, the authorities can watch it for withdrawals, so the thief can’t realistically recover his stashed treasure. Previously, German prosecutors have sold a small portion of this stolen wealth for around 500.000 Euro, money that went to the local budget, but the rest remains impossible to liquidate.

18 February 2021

The Atlantic: “The End of the Pandemic is Near. This is How We Win.”

How do we unblock these bottlenecks? Based on conversations with several experts and scientists, here are some big ideas to resolve each problem.

Individually, these proposals are bold, perhaps radical, and admittedly controversial. But together they form a coherent U.S. vaccination policy: The smartest way to vaccinate the most Americans by this summer is to try to vaccinate the most Americans we can right now. Solving the present supply crisis will also help alleviate hesitancy—the coming demand crisis—as skeptics will witness the tangible benefits of mass vaccination.

1. Authorization: Approve the AstraZeneca vaccine

The first out-of-the-box thing I’d do right now is release the AstraZeneca vaccine, Hotez told me.

The U.S. is sitting on tens of millions of doses of the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and researchers at the University of Oxford. The vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the U.K. and the European Union. But the FDA has asked the company for more clinical-trial data to confirm the drug’s efficacy, probably because AstraZeneca’s research in Brazil and the U.K. has been infamously messy.

Derek Thompson

‘Bold’ and ‘controversial’ is not how I would describe these proposals; ‘desperate’ and ‘reckless’ are closer to the truth. The rise of mutant variants of the coronavirus is precisely why regulatory bodies should examine vaccines more closely. AstraZeneca in particular is a poor choice for wide distribution after their mishandled trials. The articles conveniently leaves out that, while the European Medicines Agency approved it, most European countries decided not to administer it to older persons because of inconclusive trial results, and some countries such as Switzerland and South Korea declined authorization altogether.

The Guardian: “Invasion of the ‘frankenbees’: the danger of building a better bee”

Honeybees originated in Eurasia roughly 35m years ago, and as long as they have had steady access to flowering plants, they have thrived. But in the modern world, bees face all kinds of dangers. Colony collapse is not a single malady, but rather an amalgamation of different challenges. Alongside the dangers of pesticides, diseases such as Israeli acute paralysis virus, gut parasites and invasive parasites such as the varroa mite can overwhelm the bees’ immune systems. Industrial agriculture imposes its own threats: a mania for monocultures has led to shrinking foraging habitats, while, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, bees employed in commercial pollination, in which hives are stacked high on trucks and driven around the country to pollinate almond trees and other crops, get highly stressed, which damages their resilience and eating habits.

Beekeepers fear genetic engineering of honeybees will introduce patents and privatisation to one of the last bastions of agriculture that is collectively managed and owned by no one. Think about it, Haefeker told me, the one area Big Ag doesn’t yet control is pollination. And pollination is huge. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that pollinators help farmers grow crops worth up to $577bn (£437bn) annually.

Damage to the bee population, by harming a vital pollinator, is already threatening crops worldwide. Outside FAO’s headquarters in Rome, a neon billboard flashes in English, Italian and Arabic a series of urgent save-the-planet messages. Save the bees tops the list. If bees disappear, food crops and animal feeds, not to mention the raw materials for biofuels (from canola and palm oil), textiles (cotton) and medicines, will simply vanish from much of the planet. It has got so bad in some parts of China that humans already pollinate some crops by hand. In what feels like a riff on a Black Mirror episode, Harvard researchers are working on the RoboBee, a flying robotic pollinator that is half the size of a paperclip and weighs less than one-tenth of a gram. In March, Walmart filed a series of patents for its own tiny robotic pollinators.

Bernhard Warner

If the banana could be a relatively safe target for genetic engineering to protect the commercial variant from a deadly disease, bees are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The issues are far more complex than in the case of the banana, as highlighted above, so a solution based exclusively on gene editing would have to be equally complex, thus raising the prospects of unintended reactions. The risks involved are enormous, given how crucial honeybees are in pollination and agriculture. I do not think we can afford to play around with the food supply of the entire world…

16 February 2021

Fast Company: “Firefox stops working on progressive web app support”

Unfortunately, Firefox is missing one key feature found in Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, and that’s the ability to install websites as desktop apps. Over the last year, this feature has fundamentally changed the way I work by reducing browser tab clutter and providing faster access to favorite sites, and I can’t go back to Firefox without it.

So I was surprised to see recently that Mozilla has abandoned work on a similar feature for Firefox. Although Mozilla once championed the idea of web apps—and, to be fair, still supports them in its Android browser—it no longer has a path to enabling them on desktop computers.

That puts Firefox at a disadvantage against Chrome and Edge, both of which are speeding ahead in making web apps an integral part of their desktop browsers. But it’s also just disappointing to see Mozilla abandon what is becoming a bastion against walled garden app stores.

Jared Newman

I have barely browsed with Firefox in years, and every time it makes headlines seemingly for the wrong reasons. Personally I have rarely used PWAs, except for the Twitter app on Windows, because I find native apps, on desktop and mobile, to be faster and more feature-rich. Nevertheless, developers are having success by building apps directly on the web platform – the most high-profile example being Google and Microsoft recently launching web versions of their cloud gaming services for iOS.

MIT Technology Review: “How classroom technology is holding students back”

Emily Haasch

Why are these devices so unhelpful for learning? Various explanations have been offered. When students read text from a screen, it’s been shown, they absorb less information than when they read it on paper. Another frequently cited culprit is the distraction the devices afford—whether it’s a college student checking Instagram or a first grader like Kevin drawing bright pink lines with his finger. But there are deeper reasons.

One is motivation. If Kevin had been asked to combine 8 and 3 by a teacher rather than an iPad, there’s a greater chance he would have been interested in trying to do it. It’s different when you’re learning from a person and you have a relationship with that person, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has said. That makes you care a little bit more about what they think, and it makes you a little bit more willing to put forth effort.

Allowing students to choose the topics they’ll learn about can also lead to serious gaps in knowledge for children who don’t know much about the world—or even for those who do. One personalized-learning skeptic has observed, If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs.

Natalie Wexler

Another article written before the pandemic that has proven increasingly relevant as some countries closed schools to prevent viral transmission and teaching has abruptly switched to remote and digital. I can attest to some of the issues outlined here from my experience, as I delivered trainings at work for a while, both in the offices and remotely. It feels harder to connect with the attendees, to correctly assess their understanding of the topics and attention levels while you are also giving a presentation in front of a screen.

12 February 2021

Bloomberg: “The Tesla-Bitcoin Singularity is Here at Last”

The move raises the usual questions about Tesla’s governance. Apart from the speculative nature of it, the fact that CEO Elon Musk has been tweeting heavily about cryptocurrencies of late should ring alarm bells in whatever passes for Tesla’s boardroom. Not necessarily because anything untoward has happened, but it’s fair to say Musk has some history to live down when it comes to the tweeting. Giving authorities any reason to scrutinize Tesla is inadvisable. One has to wonder what a regulator might make of this tweet from just a month before the “updated” investment policy was approved, for example:

One way in which the foray into crypto certainly helped on Monday was taking the spotlight off some less exciting news. Tesla was recently summoned by Chinese regulators to answer complaints about quality and safety issues with its cars. China is crucial for Tesla because, as the 10-K also revealed, revenue in this growth company’s home market in the fourth quarter was still lower than two years previously.

Liam Denning

Elon Musk in a nutshell: funding a $100 million innovation contest to identify ways to remove and store carbon dioxide, while investing $1.5 billion in Bitcoin, a pseudo-currency with a massive appetite for electricity. Hypocrisy? Greed? Market manipulation? I’d say all of the above!

11 February 2021

Vanity Fair: “How Elon Musk Gambled Tesla to Save SolarCity”

Elon Musk SolarCity illustration
photo illustration by Justin Patrick Long

As is common with Musk’s ventures, SolarCity professed to be focused on changing the world. Everything was very motivational, says a former executive. Some workers, taking the ethos to heart, sported SolarCity tattoos.

But the initial success of the company’s stock masked some difficult realities. SolarCity’s business model was to front the costs of installing solar panels and allow homeowners to pay over time, which created a constant need for cash. That required raising money from outside investors, often big banks, who were then entitled to the first chunk of the payments homeowners made—leaving SolarCity in a never-ending scramble to raise more debt. The real engineering that took place at SolarCity, in short, was financial, not environmental.

By 2014, several insiders say, the board was also growing concerned. The company imported most of its solar panels from China, and it looked like demand would soon outpace supply. Because Musk had a reputation as a manufacturing genius, the board decided that SolarCity needed to start making its own panels—a huge shift in its business model. Installing and selling solar has almost nothing to do with manufacturing, says a former solar-industry executive. It’s like a car dealer saying it’s going to make cars.

In June 2014, SolarCity bought Silevo, a solar-panel manufacturer that had struck a deal with New York to build a factory in Buffalo. On a conference call, Musk boasted that the deal would enable SolarCity to install tens of gigawatts of panels every year—far beyond the company’s peak annual run rate of about one gigawatt. He spoke as if the technology were already proven. On its website, SolarCity predicted it would achieve a breakthrough in solar-power pricing thanks to massive economies of scale.

It was shoot first and aim later, says the former senior employee. There was a lot of machismo going on: bigger, better, badder, faster.

Richard Lawson

SolarCity is rarely mentioned in the news lately, possibly because it offers a counternarrative to Musk’s preferred public image of genius and successful entrepreneur.

European Council on Foreign Relations: “The crisis of American power: How Europeans see Biden’s America”

Americans have a new president but not a new country. While most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader. This is the key finding of a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, and conducted in November and December by Datapraxis and YouGov.

Our survey showed that Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change. Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them. They are drawing radical consequences from these lessons. Large numbers think Europeans should invest in their own defence and look to Berlin rather than Washington as their most important partner. They want to be tougher with the US on economic issues. And, rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China.

Ivan Krastev & Mark Leonard

Interesting results, but overall unsurprising, to me at least. Recent Republican presidents elected in the United States have been increasingly erratic, moving further from cooperation with traditional allies and towards putting American interests first. We cannot repeat this cycle of resets and departures in international relationships at the whims of an American electorate that cares too little about foreign policy. It will certainly be difficult to formulate a common European agenda, and even harder to implement it, but the first step is to acknowledge that it needs not be identical to the American agenda.

10 February 2021

Ars Technica: “Inside Elon Musk’s plan to build one Starship a week—and settle Mars”

Compare that to NASA and its Space Launch System, the big rocket that the space agency has been developing for a decade and for which Boeing only recently completed a single core stage. This core stage is about 15 meters taller than Starship but lacks its complexity. NASA will, in fact, toss each SLS core stage into the ocean after a single use. And Boeing doesn’t have to make the engines, as the rocket uses 40-year-old space shuttle main engines. Despite this, and with nearly $2 billion in annual funding from NASA, Boeing’s stretch goal for building core stages is one to two per year… some time in the mid-2020s.

SpaceX’s stretch goal is to build one to two Starships a week, this year, and to pare back construction costs to as low as $5 million each.

A high production rate solves many ills, he said. If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next.

None of this is cheap. Boca Chica is a fairly remote location to ship materials into. And the company has gone really fast, sparing few expenses. How long can it go like this, and how is he paying for all of this? Musk declined to offer specifics.

We’re just paying for it internally, he said. Then he paused and added, Success is not assured.

Eric Berger

Interesting insight into the concrete aspects of Elon Musk’s plans to reach, and eventually colonize, Mars. Considering both test flights of his new Starship prototype have ended with a bang, I wouldn’t say he is making much progress between iterations just yet. In this case, I tend to agree with his approach of building up a production line and reducing manufacturing costs – although he doesn’t seem to have learned much about micromanagement from his awful Tesla experiences – but I suspect there are less wasteful ways to test prototypes than shooting them up into the sky and hoping for the best. It certainly makes for exciting headlines – and stokes Musk’s huge ego, no doubt.

09 February 2021

Wired: “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life inside Tesla’s Production Hell”

Elon Musk illustration by Mike McQuade
Unfettered genius. Unpredictable rages. Here’s what it was like to work at Tesla as Model 3 manufacturing ramped up and the company’s leader melted down. Illustration by Mike McQuade

Some company executives say they began reading celebrity tabloids. If the magazines reported turmoil in Musk’s love life, they knew to wait to deliver bad news. And executives followed his tweets and retweets closely. We called it management by Twitter, a former Solar City employee said. Some customer would tweet some random complaint, and then we would be ordered to drop everything and spend a week on some problem affecting one loudmouth in Pasadena, rather than all the work we’re supposed to do to support the thousands of customers who didn’t tweet that day.

Musk would say I’ve got to fire someone today, and I’d say, No you don’t, and he’d say, No, no, I just do. I’ve got to fire somebody, one former high-­ranking executive told me. (A Tesla spokesperson disputed this but added that Musk makes difficult but necessary decisions.) At one meeting Musk, agitated, broke a phone. During another, he noticed that an executive was missing and called him. The man’s wife had recently given birth, and he explained that he was taking time off as she recuperated. Musk was angry. At a minimum, you should be on phone calls, Musk told the man. Having a kid doesn’t prevent you from being on the phone.

Whether it was because of Musk’s management style or in spite of it, progress continued. And that was the weird part, a high-­ranking engineering executive said, because we were doing amazing work. I don’t want it to seem like the whole experience was negative, because when people were shielded from Elon, Tesla was amazing. We did incredible things.

Charles Duhigg

An article providing a lot of insight into the difficult working environment at Tesla while ramping up production at their factory in Fremont. ‘Management by Twitter’ and randomly firing people for the slightest misstep sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump.

08 February 2021

Insider: “Jeff Bezos reveals what it’s like to build an empire and become the richest man in the world”

Bezos: Yes. This is super important to me, and I believe on the longest timeframe — and really here I’m thinking of a timeframe of a couple of hundred years, so over millions of decades — I believe and I get increasing conviction with every passing year, that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work that I’m doing. And so there is a whole plan for Blue Origin.

Döpfner: Really, so you’d say retail, e-commerce, clouds, publishing — that’s all less relevant than the space project?

Bezos: Yes, and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, of course, I’m interested in space, because I’m passionate about it. I’ve been studying it and thinking about it since I was a 5-year-old boy. But that is not why I’m pursuing this work. I’m pursuing this work, because I believe if we don’t we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change.

Mathias Döpfner

In light of the Jeff Bezos’s recent announcement that he is stepping down as Amazon CEO to focus on Blue Origin among other things, I have dug up this older interview where he talks at length about his vision for humanity in space. Despite criticism for his business practices, I support his drive for expansion into outer space, and I think he is more suited to deliver on this vision than Elon Musk.

06 February 2021

Reuters: “Icebound–The climate-change secrets of 19th century ship’s logbooks”

It took Melville four more months to find De Long’s body. Nineteen other crew members also died, their heroic lives cut short by drowning, disease, exposure and starvation. But, thanks to Melville, the logbooks survived. Once, while battling through a snowstorm, he briefly considered reburying them to lighten his load, then changed his mind. Setting my teeth against the storm, he wrote, I would swear a new oath to carry them through, let come what might.

Thousands of miles away, and 138 years later, the Jeannette’s logbooks sit in a climate-controlled room in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. Every page has been digitized and uploaded to the web, then transcribed by an eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather.

For the past decade, its far-flung volunteers have shown that the Jeannette’s logbooks, and others like them, are more than what Melville called the records … of our two years of toil and suffering. They are rich repositories of data that can help us understand how profoundly the Earth’s climate has changed and what might happen to it in the future.

Meteorologists have long recorded the weather at land-based stations. But nearly three-quarters of the planet is covered by water, and that’s where most weather takes place. Thousands of ships have criss-crossed the oceans, noting the weather in handwritten logbooks that for decades sat forgotten in bookshelves and basements.

Andrew R.C. Marshall

Fascinating report about extracting data points about past climate from an unlikely source: the logbooks of the thousands of ships that have sailed the oceans in centuries past. Transcribing the handwritten logs is a painstaking, manual work, but it yields important insights about weather patterns, temperature, winds, and ice sheets going back to 1836. The results serve to confirm, once again, the extent of human-caused global warming.

05 February 2021

The Guardian: “The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit”

The other crucial idea here is the vertiginous fall from “heart of Empire” to “occupied colony”. In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony. And, as Deighton successfully demonstrated, this logic can be founded in an alternative English history. The moment of greatest triumph – the defeat of the Nazis – can be reimagined as the moment of greatest humiliation – defeat by the Nazis. The pain of colonisation and defeat can, in the context of uneasy membership of the EU, be imaginatively appropriated.

Britain was genuinely in a topsy-turvy situation, the winner that had been surpassed by the losers. Why not draw a topsy-turvy conclusion: in a dark stratum of the reactionary mind, we must think of ourselves as a defeated nation? And if Britain was to be defeated, the EU must be its invasive oppressor. Must be, because there was no other possible candidate. The very absurdity of this notion was its strength. The paranoiac must at some stage ask himself: but why are they out to get me? Since there was no actual evidence of any western European hostility, the answer must lie in some deeply hidden motivation. How could they hate us when we saved them in the war? The proto-Brexiteers came up with a counter-factual truth that was at the same time highly satisfying: they hate us because we saved them.

Fintan O’Toole

Fascinating reflections on the hidden and irrational motives behind Brexit. I don’t know enough about their culture and imperial self-image to confirm or deny it, but the article does seem to present a plausible picture, however twisted. Problem is, Brexiters, and the rest of the country along with them, must now live with the consequences of this historic decision, but are still refusing to accept responsibility and keep trying to delay things further. At this rate, Brexit and the relationship between the EU and UK will to be a constant issue for years to come.

04 February 2021

The Guardian: “People v mosquitos: what to do about our biggest killer”

While our counterattacks are reducing the number of casualties she perpetrates – malaria deaths in particular are declining rapidly – the mosquito remains the deadliest hunter of human beings on the planet.

Taking a broad range of estimates into account, since 2000, the average annual number of human deaths caused by the mosquito was around 2 million. Humans came in a distant second at 475,000, followed by snakes (50,000), dogs and sandflies (25,000 each), the tsetse fly, and the assassin or kissing bug (10,000 each). The fierce killers of lore and Hollywood celebrity were much further down our list. The crocodile was ranked 10th, with 1,000 annual deaths. Next on the list were hippos with 500, and elephants and lions with 100 fatalities each. The much-slandered shark and wolf shared 15th position, killing an average of 10 people per annum.

They are masters of evolutionary adaptation. Mosquitoes can evolve and adapt to their changing environments within a few generations. During the Blitz of 1940–41, for example, as German bombs rained down on London, isolated populations of Culex mosquitoes were confined to the air-raid tunnel shelters of the London Underground, along with the city’s resilient citizens. These trapped mosquitoes quickly adapted to feed on mice, rats and humans instead of birds, and are now a species distinct from their above-ground parental ancestors.

What should have taken thousands of years of evolution was accomplished in less than 100. In another 100 years, jokes Richard Jones, former president of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, there may be separate Circle line, Metropolitan line and Jubilee line mosquito species in the tunnels below London.

Timothy Winegard

Throughout human history, mosquitos have been a constant companion – and source of plagues and suffering. Despite recent technological advances, diseases spread by mosquito bites continue to cause large numbers of deaths each year, prompting people to invent new strategies to keep the insects at bay. My personal favorite: zapping them with autonomous laser beams!

03 February 2021

Engadget: “iOS 14.5 will let Apple Watch owners unlock iPhones while wearing a mask”

There is, unfortunately, one major caveat: the feature only works if iPhone’s owner is also wearing an Apple Watch. So long as the Watch itself is already unlocked, you’ll just need to look at your iPhone as usual; after that, you’ll get a haptic buzz on your wrist letting you know that the unlock was successful. As we understand it, the feature — which must be manually enabled before use — allows Face ID to proceed with an unlock despite much lower facial recognition accuracy because the nearby Watch has already been authenticated. You’ll also be able to lock your phone from your Apple Watch, though it’s worth noting that all other actions that might rely on a face unlock — like, say, approving an App Store purchase — can’t be handled this way.

Given the need for frequent mask use, Apple has attempted to address this issue last May with an update that prompts Face ID to more quickly kick users into their passcode input screen when their faces are obscured. While a good idea in theory, the change wasn’t particularly elegant in practice — users have frequently been left waiting while iOS seemingly decides what to do. With all of this in mind, it’s little surprise that Apple is reportedly testing optical in-display fingerprint sensors that could debut in iPhones as soon as this year.

Chris Velazco

These days, Apple’s solution to each and every problem people have boils down to: purchase another Apple product! This is especially true for problems Apple themselves introduced through previous design decisions: headphone jack removed ▶ buy AirPods; included iPhone charger removedbuy a separate one; all MacBook ports except USB-C removed ▶ buy Apple dongles; and now TouchID removed, coupled with ubiquitous face masks ▶ buy an Apple Watch! Zero empathy for people who may have lost jobs or income this past year during the pandemic. But hey, it’s a great way to make money and improve stock market performance!

02 February 2021

Kotaku: “Google Stadia shuts down Internal Studios, changing Business Focus”

Still, without offering an all-you-can-play service nor offering killer exclusive games, Stadia struggled to get its footing. Meanwhile, Microsoft ramped up its xCloud cloud gaming service as part of its Game Pass Ultimate bundle, and Stadia became less and less alluring to the kind of hardcore gamer who can build buzz for a new gaming service.

Google seemingly built for the future with the creation of first-party studios and a leadership team consisting of accomplished studio heads and creative directors, but those efforts weren’t enough to stave off the fate many people feared when hearing about this Google initiative: that it would lose support from within before it got ample time to realize its potential.

Stadia isn’t quite done. The Stadia tech could still succeed. By many accounts, Stadia runs games great. But as a game-maker, Google appears to have packed it in. Said one source familiar with Stadia’s first-party operations, citing another tech giant’s widely publicized failure to create video games: Google was a terrible place to make games. Imagine Amazon, but under-resourced.

Stephen Totilo

Less than two years after launch, Google is restructuring Stadia, abandoning exclusive gaming content from the internal development team SG&E and closing its two game studios. Among tech giants, Google seems the poster child of the internet era: interested in a wide variety of things, but quickly loosing focus, lacking the patience to iron out details and develop projects for the long term. But I guess it is less complicated and more lucrative to milk the ad market through backroom deals with Facebook.

The New York Times: “Tech C.E.O.s are in Love with their Principal Doomsayer”

As we boarded the black gull-wing Tesla Mr. Harari had rented for his visit, he brought up Aldous Huxley. Generations have been horrified by his novel “Brave New World”, which depicts a regime of emotion control and painless consumption. Readers who encounter the book today, Mr. Harari said, often think it sounds great. Everything is so nice, and in that way it is an intellectually disturbing book because you’re really hard-pressed to explain what’s wrong with it, he said. And you do get today a vision coming out of some people in Silicon Valley which goes in that direction.

He said he had resigned himself to tech executives’ global reign, pointing out how much worse the politicians are. I’ve met a number of these high-tech giants, and generally they’re good people, he said. They’re not Attila the Hun. In the lottery of human leaders, you could get far worse.

Some of his tech fans, he thinks, come to him out of anxiety. Some may be very frightened of the impact of what they are doing, Mr. Harari said.

Still, their enthusiastic embrace of his work makes him uncomfortable. It’s just a rule of thumb in history that if you are so much coddled by the elites it must mean that you don’t want to frighten them, Mr. Harari said. They can absorb you. You can become the intellectual entertainment.

Nellie Bowles

I have never quite understood the admiration and reverence some people have developed for Yuval Noah Harari. It seems to me that he is just taking existing ideas and repackages them in a more digestible form for the masses – basically a historian version of Paulo Coelho. This might partially explain the benevolence of the tech elite: he is simply introducing some of big tech’s long-term plans to the public and CEOs like that he is building acceptance in advance for these ideas. Or they are so confident of their grip on power that his criticism poses no threat to them, a distraction so minor that it has become entertaining.

Wired: “The banana is dying. The race is on to reinvent it before it’s too late”

Despite its ubiquity, the Cavendish is something of a genetic outlier among crops: because it has three copies of each chromosome, it is sterile and can only reproduce by creating clones of itself. This makes the Cavendish an ideal crop to grow at scale – farmers know how a plantation of Cavendish bananas will respond to pesticides, how fast its fruit will ripen, how many bananas each plant will yield. You know what’s going to happen to a Cavendish banana when you pick it, says Bebber. When you put it in a refrigerated container, you know exactly what’s going to come out of the other end most of the time. Cavendish plants are short, so they don’t blow over easily in a hurricane, are easy to spray with pesticides, and reliably produce lots of bananas.

So far, Latin America, which grows almost all of the world’s export bananas – including those for the US and Europe – has escaped TR4. But, Ploetz says, it’s only a matter of time. Our concern in Central America is that if somebody has an outbreak on their property, they are going to keep their mouths shut, and then it’ll have spread widely by the time people realise it’s there, he says.

Faced with a crisis that could see the Cavendish gone forever, a handful of researchers are racing to use gene-editing to create a better banana and bring the world’s first TR4-resistant Cavendish to the market. To get there, they will butt up against not only the limitations of technology, but resistance from lawmakers, environmentalists and consumers wary of GM crops. But as TR4 closes in on Latin America, gene-editing may be the last chance we have to save the one banana we have chosen above all others.

Matt Reynolds

For people who like bananas, an interesting insight into their biology and cultivation – coupled with an impending threat of extinction, from a pathogen, naturally. I am generally wary of attempts to solve issues with our food supplies through gene editing, but the banana could be an exception. Because it only reproduces through cloning, a single precise genetic modification to make this variety resistant to TR4 could rapidly replace vulnerable crops. At the same time, there is no danger of the spliced genes spreading to wild banana populations, because the plants themselves are sterile.

01 February 2021

Musings on Markets: “The Storming of the Bastille: The Reddit Crowd targets the Hedge Funds!”

To put the GameStop trading frenzy in perspective, let’s start with the recognition that markets are not magical mechanisms, but represent aggregations of human beings making investment judgments, some buying and some selling, for a variety of reasons, ranging from the absurd to the profound. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the forces playing out in other aspects of human behavior find their way into markets. In particular, there are three broad trends from the last decade at play here:

  1. A loss of faith in experts (economic, scientific, financial, government) […]
  2. An unquestioning worship of crowd wisdom, combined with an empowering of crowds […]
  3. A conversion of disagreements in every arena into the personal and the political […]

As I look at the GameStop episode play out, I see all three of these at play. One reason that the Redditors targeted GameStop is because they viewed hedge funds as part of the “expert” class, and consequently incapable of getting things right. They have used social media platforms to gather and reinforce each others’ views, right or wrong, and then act in concert quickly and with extraordinary efficiency, to move stock prices. Finally, even a casual perusal of the comments on the Reddit thread exposes how much of this is personal, with far more comments about how this would teach hedge funds and Wall Street a lesson than there were about GameStop the company.

Aswath Damodaran

As expected, Prof. Damodaran presents a detailed and thoughtful analysis of the Reddit-GameStop explosive situation, concluding with reasonable advice for the people involved – advice that will likely be missed or ignored, as he himself acknowledges. I get the sense that this phenomenon is a perfect storm of lockdown frustration, economic and social marginalization, and generalized loss of trust in experts and regulations. The storm rages on for now…