30 March 2022

Wired UK: “I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London”

Among a sea of Airbnb profiles, one thing seems clear: whoever is behind this is probably called Christian. Or Robert. I scroll through my inbox, remembering that when I booked my Airbnb I had been spammed with emails from a management company. That company, Continental Apartments, had offered to upsell me, among other things, a portable air conditioner (from £15), an additional set of linen (from £35), a highchair (from £16.67), an airbed (from £127.78) and a London Cheese Experience (from £25). A company number listed on the website of Continental Apartments (which is embellished with reviews from delighted clients – Lance K, Annie G, Joel S, Marcellus N – the profile pictures of whom have all been taken from stock photo libraries) leads to a firm called Lusso Management, which was founded in May 2018 by a German man called Christian Robert Baumann.

I had, finally, found my Christian. And my Robert. But I’d also found something else. A scam, co-ordinated across a number of Airbnb accounts, encompassing hundreds of listings and thousands of reviews. Many of the reviews and host profiles are fake or misleading, and, in some cases, the properties listed don’t exist. In one instance, pictures on a listing in London Bridge are mirrored versions of the pictures used on another. The bottle of wine on the counter, the microwave and the washing machine are all, curiously, backwards. Two other listings, which appear to be from the same building, again use the mirroring trick to flip the lounge, bedroom and kitchen.

According to Inside Airbnb, a service that scrapes Airbnb to shine a light on the platform’s impact on cities around the world, there are an estimated 36,964 listings on Airbnb in London that are listed by a host with at least one other listing. While Airbnb presents itself as a sharing economy company, the business of hosting is becoming increasingly systemised and professionalised, with critics arguing that businesses are able to make huge sums of money at the expense of local residents who are unable to access properties locked away by the short-term rental gold rush.

James Temperton

Wherever there’s quick money to make coupled with lax regulation or enforcement, there’s bound to be people exploiting the situation by scamming others – and Airbnb is no exception. Fake profiles writing fake reviews for fake properties – one has to wonder how much of Airbnb’s listings are artificially inflated this way, especially in popular cities like London.

29 March 2022

Wired: “How Telegram Became the Anti-Facebook”

But over the past year or so, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has begun to look a little less invulnerable. Lawmakers have increasingly arrayed against it, and at brief moments—like the January 2021 mass exodus from WhatsApp, and a second one that followed a Facebook outage in October—the powerful network effects that drive Meta’s supremacy have seemed to shift briefly into reverse. Somehow Telegram, with its tiny staff, has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of those stumbles.

Whether this is a good thing for the world is another question, one muddied by how poorly understood Telegram is, especially in the US. The vast majority of journalists still refer to it as an “encrypted messaging app”. This description unnerves many security experts, who warn that, unlike Signal or WhatsApp, Telegram is not end-to-end encrypted by default; that users must go out of their way to turn on the app’s “secret chats” function (which few people actually do); and that only individual conversations, not those among groups, can be end-to-end encrypted. For the millions of people who use Telegram under repressive regimes, experts say, that confusion could be costly.

But the term “messaging app” is itself somewhat misleading, in ways that lead many to underestimate Telegram. Over the years, the app has become a deliberate hybrid of a messaging service and a social media platform—a rival not only to WhatsApp and Signal but also, increasingly, to Facebook itself.

Its blend of private messaging and public channels makes it a perfect organizing tool: ideal for evangelizing in public and then plotting in secret. I call it the one-two punch, says Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who studies Telegram. You can do both propaganda and planning on the same app.

It’s been vital to pro-democracy protesters from Belarus to Hong Kong, but the global right seems to find Telegram particularly congenial. In Germany, a movement against Covid restrictions used the app to organize huge demonstrations in central Berlin in 2020, leading to the storming of parliament’s steps by a mob of extremists, in a sinister foreshadowing of January 6. (The stated aim of some protesters was to show Trump that they were ready for him to liberate Germany from a deep-state conspiracy.)

Darren Loucaides

I have always been somewhat skeptical of companies founded by Russians (including Revolut, which has grown quite popular here in Romania) – no matter how strongly they may deny connections to the Russian authorities, a repressive government could always find ways to coerce the company into complying with its demands, however illegitimate (same goes for Chinese companies). This extensive piece has only increased my apprehension; Durov’s admiration for Mark Zuckerberg, his cult-like status inside the company and outward secrecy, their (fortunately unsuccessful) forays into cryptocurrencies and almost complete lack of a sustainable business model, are all reasons to remain cautious of Telegram and its future. I personally like Telegram more than WhatsApp and similar messaging apps; it has a nicer interface and feels more well-built – probably owing to the Durov brothers’ background in mathematics and engineering – but everything else surrounding it feels shady.

26 March 2022

IEA: “Emergency measures can quickly cut global oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day”

If fully carried out in advanced economies, the measures recommended by the IEA’s new 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use would lower oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within four months – equivalent to the oil demand of all the cars in China. This would significantly reduce potential strains at a time when a large amount of Russian supplies may no longer reach the market and the peak demand season of July and August is approaching. The measures would have an even greater effect if adopted in part or in full in emerging economies as well.

Since the majority of oil demand comes from transport, the IEA’s 10-Point Plan focuses on how to use less oil getting people and goods from A to B, drawing on concrete measures that have already been put to use in a diverse range of countries and cities. The short-term actions it proposes include reducing the amount of oil consumed by cars through lower speed limits, working from home, occasional limits on car access to city centres, cheaper public transport, more carpooling and other initiatives – and greater use of high-speed rail and virtual meetings instead of air travel.

IEA News

Perfectly sensible recommendations, but I fear parts of the public in many countries would vocally oppose their adoption, particularly restricting urban car use during weekends. The recent crisis reminded me that we used to have similar restrictions in Romania in Communist times, namely cars with odd numbers on their license plates were permitted to circulate on odd days and vice versa – a similar initiative now, no matter how beneficial for society, would only invoke the specter of poverty and dictatorship of those past times.

25 March 2022

The Verge: “EU targets Big Tech with sweeping new antitrust legislation”

The EU has unveiled its biggest ever legislative effort to balance competition in the tech world. The new Digital Markets Act, or DMA, is intended to rein in the power of the largest tech corporations and allow smaller entities to compete with the mostly US-based firms. So far, the EU has tackled antitrust issues on a case-by-case basis, but the DMA is intended to introduce sweeping reforms that will address systemic issues in the whole market.

Today’s announcement targets interoperability of messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage, with the EU saying that vendors will have to open up and interoperate with smaller messaging platforms, if they so request. The EU says that this should give users more choice in how they send messages, without having to worry about what platform the recipient is on. There’s also a requirement that users should be able to freely choose their browser, virtual assistants or search engines.

The legislation hasn’t passed yet — the EU says the language has to be finalized and checked, at which point it’ll have to be approved by Parliament and Council. In a press conference held early Friday morning, Vestager said she expects DMA to come into force sometime in October. Owners of messaging platforms will likely have staggered obligations, from three months to four years, depending upon the complexities of the integrations requested.

James Vincent

As usual whenever the EU moves forward with legislation against US tech giants, there was a flurry of negative comments claiming that this initiative will be banning privacy and encryption in the name of competition law and similar nonsense (mostly coming from the US tech giants themselves).

21 March 2022

Ars Technica: “Americans want to be carbon neutral, don’t want to take needed steps”

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center announced the results of polling that asked the US public its thoughts on how to address climate change. While the usual partisan split was apparent, the survey highlights an even larger challenge that policymakers will face: the US public supports contradictory things when it comes to climate policy.

Nearly 70 percent of the public favored taking steps toward the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. Yet less than a third support transitioning off fossil fuels.

There are some obvious problems here with people not having a firm grip on reality. People still don’t think humans are causing climate change, or they somehow refuse to recognize that reducing fossil fuel use will lead to cleaner air. But those have been issues for a while, and the people who believe those things are unlikely to support a pathway to carbon neutrality anyway.

The larger problem is that even the people who claim to support putting the US on a path that leads to carbon neutrality don’t seem to realize the sorts of changes it requires. Given that, many of them are unlikely to support the policy changes that are needed to get there.

John Timmer

Climate policy is far from the only topic where the broader public wants certain outcomes, but is unwilling to contribute to the solution, or is supporting measures that would exacerbate the problem. Take the pandemic: I think everyone can agree that we wish it to be over, but many are perfectly content to shift the burden of ending the pandemic onto others by denying to vaccinate or wear masks, arguing that their personal risks are low. Or the war in Ukraine: many are up in arms for the US government to intervene and enforce a no-fly-zone, ignoring the potential for rapid escalation of hostilities; others advocate for more sanctions on Russian oil and gas imports, but balk at paying higher fuel prices. A similar dynamic seems to be plaguing housing policy in the US, though I admit I have only read about it superficially.

17 March 2022

Coronavirus in Romania: skydiving without a parachute

While the attention of the public and authorities has been thoroughly captured by the Russian invasion of Ukraine over the past weeks, and despite massive efforts to diminish the issue in public eyes, the two-year-old pandemic is far from being a thing of the past. As I feared in my previous article, case numbers have skyrocketed here in Romania throughout January, reaching an official daily high over 40,000 on February 1st, a new record. Like other Omicron waves around the world, the sharp increase was followed by a quick retreat, with new cases declining at a rate of about 35% each week. Currently, in the second week of March, the case numbers hover above 3,000 daily on average.

Mortality has also progressed on a trajectory similar to other Omicron waves: deaths have increased after the typical two-week delay, but at a much lower rate than cases – on average 35% per week compared to almost 90% for cases. The number of daily deaths surpassed 200 on two occasions in the second half of February, considerably lower than the mortality of the autumn Delta wave, which reached as high as 600 a day. Deaths are also currently in decline, although, again, at a lower rate than cases, around 20% per week. Our experience seems to support conclusions from other countries that the Omicron mutation causes less severe disease, at least in populations with sufficient prior immunity, either through infection or vaccinations. But during this wave, medical personnel also had access to new antiviral medication for severe COVID cases, so this might have also contributed to keeping the death rate lower than before.

12 March 2022

The New Yorker: “The Promise of Carbon-Neutral Steel”

It’s hard to say exactly when steel was first made. From time to time, it would be created when carbon diffused from the charcoal into the iron, strengthening it. But steel production was hard to control until a few hundred years ago, when the blast furnace was invented. Using bellows, steelworkers increased the temperatures of their coal fires to nearly three thousand degrees—hot enough to melt iron in large quantities. Today, blast furnaces are still the main method used to reduce steel. Current models are about a hundred feet tall, and can produce ten thousand tons of iron in a day. Instead of charcoal, they use coke, a processed form of coal. Coke and ore go in the top of the furnace, and molten iron comes out the bottom, infused with carbon; this iron can be easily processed into steel. The steel industry produces around two billion tons of it each year, in a $2.5-trillion market, while emitting more than three billion tons of CO2 annually, most of it from blast furnaces.

Fortunately, we’ve since learned that there’s more than one way to purify iron. Instead of using carbon to remove the oxygen from ore, creating CO2, we can use hydrogen, creating H2O—that is, water. Many companies are working on this approach; this summer, a Swedish venture used it to make steel at a pilot plant. If the technique were widely employed, it could cut the steel industry’s emissions by ninety per cent, and our global emissions by nearly six per cent.

Reducing steel with hydrogen has been done on a small scale in laboratories for years. Martin Pei, the chief technology officer of S.S.A.B., the steelmaking company, told me that there were no great scientific hurdles to scaling up the process. Instead, it’s mostly been a matter of optimizing the operating conditions: for instance, engineers needed to experiment with the machinery that heats the hydrogen before it’s pumped in. The real hurdle, Pei said, is the hydrogen supply. Pure hydrogen comes mostly from natural gas, typically methane—but getting hydrogen out of methane requires energy, and also creates carbon monoxide, which produces CO2 when burned. There is a green source of hydrogen: water. It’s possible to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, by running current through it, in a process called electrolysis. But electrolysis, in turn, is green only if the electrons involved also come from renewable energy.

Matthew Hutson

Tackling global warming requires major adjustments in every carbon-producing industry, not only energy generation and transportation. Still, switching to mass-use of hydrogen in key areas, from air fuels to steelmaking, carries some risks that I rarely see discussed. Hydrogen is a very volatile gas that can explode violently in contact with oxygen – this issue famously brought down the nascent dirigible business last century. It also needs to be refrigerated and compressed for transportation, increasing costs and potentially requiring upgraded infrastructure compared to natural gas.

11 March 2022

Dan Wang: “2021 letter”

Everything that can go wrong in urban design has gone wrong in Beijing. The climate is arid and prone to northerly sandstorms. Its streets are unwalkable, but a stroll would reveal that its imperial heritage, made up of alley houses called hutongs, is slowly being taken over by its socialist heritage, made up of gray Soviet blocks that tower over all. Beijing is therefore a desert steppe city with Stalinist characteristics. A decade ago, the city was a lively place. One can find no shortage of people reminiscing about visiting art shows and fun bars in hutongs, then grabbing roadside barbecue just outside. Today, it is a concrete no-fun zone and the most restrictive city in the country. But Beijing is redeemed by its intellectual life. It is the center not just of state power, but also universities and the biggest-dreaming startups. For those who can work up the courage to confront the mess of its urban city, a sparkling dinner awaits.

In 2018, I started to say to people that China would close its doors in 40 years, by the centenary of the country’s founding. At that point, the Celestial Empire would be secluded once more, while its people can be serenely untroubled by the turmoils of barbarians outside. Everyone reacted with disbelief, saying that there’s no way to shut down a country. But it looks like I was off only by the wrong centenary: China has been mostly shut in 2021, a hundred years after the party’s founding. I think that the government has no real exit plan for this pandemic. Any time it looks like it might relax, another variant shows up. The leadership probably has no firm aspiration to open the border at any date, and instead will assess the situation of variants and medical treatments every so often. If things don’t look good, then it won’t open up.

After all, the border closure doesn’t seem to incur significant economic costs. Goods are still flowing in and out, while people keep their spending domestic. The cost is more political, and therefore intangible. What is more easy to observe is that 99% of Chinese have no intention of going overseas. They’re terrified of the virus and think that the rest of the world is a mess.

Dan Wang

I have first encountered the concept of a China almost completely walled off from external influences in science-fiction, specifically in Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth; astonishing to think that it could happen before our own eyes, not over the next century as the author envisioned it.

08 March 2022

The New Yorker: “Money in the Metaverse”

It is hard to know what anyone else really wants, and I think of this man often. I thought of him most recently while watching Mark Zuckerberg deliver an hour-long presentation on Facebook’s rebrand—it is now called Meta—and its newfound focus on building the “metaverse”: a vast and integrated virtual world. Watching Zuckerberg stroll through a blandly monied virtual set, appointed, as if from a drop-down menu, with books and trinkets and unused-looking sports equipment, I wondered if there were people who wanted this, or would find this vision exciting. Then I reminded myself: FarmVille. I think it is useful, in attempts to forecast the future, to be humble about the enormous mystery of other people’s desires.

These days, people spend more than eighty billion dollars a year on virtual goods sold in video games. Game-studies scholars have long argued that gaming allows players to experiment with new identities and modes of being: Virtual games simulate identities as citizen-soldiers, free-agent workers, cyborg adventurers, and corporate criminals, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter write. Virtual play trains flexible personalities for flexible jobs, shapes subjects for militarized markets, and makes becoming a neoliberal subject fun. Virtual worlds, it seems, also train players to be eager, expectant, and constant consumers.

Anna Wiener

The discussion around money in the metaverse shares a lot of characteristics with Bitcoin mania and NFTs: basically, you don’t own anything tangible, with real world utility, only a set of digital instructions accessible only inside the platform where you spent money on it. It’s good business for the platform owner, who can create virtual goods endlessly at almost no cost, while relying on fake scarcity to sell them at a premium, marketing each as ‘unique’ or ‘limited editions’. I fail to see how this works for consumers though, and current global events are a sober reminder that some (most) things cannot be solved by going virtual – and that nation states still hold considerable control over financial transactions.

04 March 2022

Euronews: “Ukraine is pushing for EU membership. But what are the real chances?”

This emphasis on democracy could pose a major roadblock for Ukraine’s European path. The country scores poorly in international indexes: Freedom House calls it “partly free” while the Economist describes it as a “hybrid regime”. Reporters Without Borders says oligarchs’ grip on the media is still too “tight”.

After the [Maidan] revolution in Ukraine, the country is certainly on a pro-democratic and pro-European path. However, its democracy is still fragile and the rule of law is still not enforced properly, says Jana Juzová, a research fellow at EUROPEUM, an independent think-tank focused on European integration.

In terms of democracy, Ukraine is scoring similarly or even worse as the Western Balkan countries. Corruption, functioning and independence of judiciary, and weak democratic institutions are still among the most problematic issues.

Stratulat doubts Ukraine is anywhere “close” to fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria and is seriously concerned about the political risks inherent in a fast-tracked accession procedure, an unheard-of option.

You can have a faster process if there is political will. However, if the process stays as it is now – that is, complex and rigorous –, a faster accession would require all member states to quickly approve all tens of decisions associated with a country, she says.

This has not been the case in recent years, even for steps that were symbolic, like granting candidate status to an applicant. And there is also the question of how would a fast-track accession for Ukraine be perceived in the Balkan countries, which have been waiting for a long time and have also seen war and risks of Russian influence.

Jorge Liboreiro & Aida Sanchez Alonso

War is obviously a turbulent time, and the combination with the real-time distribution of Twitter has turned the ongoing fights into a maelstrom of disjointed information and propaganda. I personally am mostly ignoring all breaking reports, unless confirmed by multiple sources or until a couple of days have passed, to allow for a proper assessment.

02 March 2022

GMO: “Let The Wild Rumpus Begin”

Today houses in the U.S. are at the highest multiple of family income ever, after a record 20% gain last year, ahead even of the disastrous housing bubble of 2006. But although the U.S. housing market is selling at a high multiple of family income, it is less, sometimes far less, than many other countries, e.g., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and especially China. (In China, real estate has played an unusually important and unique role in the extended boom and thereby poses an equally unique risk to the economy and hence the rest of the world if its real estate market loses air exactly as it appears to be doing as we sit.)

Second, we have the most exuberant, ecstatic, even crazy investor behavior in the history of the U.S. stock market. The U.S. market today has, in my opinion, the greatest buy-in ever to the idea that stocks only go up, which is surely the real essence of a bubble. (Interestingly, where other developed countries lead in housing prices, they lag the U.S. in equity prices. Some, such as Japan, by so much that they are merely slightly overpriced today.)

Third, as if this were not enough, we also have the highest-priced bond markets in the U.S. and most other countries around the world, and the lowest rates, of course, that go with them, that human history has ever seen.

Jeremy Grantham

Interesting analysis arguing that U.S. markets are in the fourth superbubble of the last hundred years, just waiting for a trigger to start what might be the largest potential markdown of perceived wealth in U.S. history. And there’s certainly no shortage of reasons for pessimism, from high inflation to the ongoing problems of China’s real-estate giant Evergrande, to geopolitical crisis such as the invasion of Ukraine.

01 March 2022

Time: “The Untold Story of the Ukraine Crisis”

Last February, days after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, America’s allies in Kyiv decided to get tough on Medvedchuk. The Ukrainian government started by taking his TV channels off the air, depriving Russia of its propaganda outlets in the country. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv applauded the move. About two weeks later, on Feb. 19, 2021, Ukraine announced that it had seized the assets of Medvedchuk’s family. Among the most important, it said, was a pipeline that brings Russian oil to Europe, enriching Medvedchuk and his family—including Putin’s goddaughter, Daria—and helping to bankroll Medvedchuk’s political party.

The first inkling of Putin’s response came less than two days later, at 7 a.m. on Feb. 21. In a little-noticed statement, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the deployment of 3,000 paratroopers to the border with Ukraine for large-scale exercises, training them to seize enemy structures and hold them until the arrival of the main force. Those soldiers were the first in a military buildup that has since grown to more than 100,000 Russian troops.

When the Zelensky government decided to go after Medvedchuk, the U.S. welcomed it as part of Ukraine’s struggle to counter Russian malign influence, the official said. The methods used in this struggle have been novel and controversial. Rather than working through the justice system, Zelensky has imposed sanctions against Ukrainian tycoons and politicians, freezing their assets by decree.

This strategy, which the government calls “de-oligarchization”, has targeted many of Zelensky’s domestic opponents and, in particular, their television channels. The U.S. has avoided criticizing the crackdown, not wanting to “micromanage” what Ukraine was doing, said the senior U.S. official. But in the case of Medvedchuk, the U.S. embassy cheered Zelensky on.

Simon Shuster

Behind every great crisis, it seems, there is always some personal element – in Ukraine’s case, the close and old ties between Vladimir Putin and the head of a major Ukrainian opposition party, Viktor Medvedchuk. This provides useful context for the question I was pondering in my previous post, namely why has Putin ramped up his aggression now, rather than in the four years prior, when Trump was President of the United States. As Biden assumed the presidency, Zelensky felt that the moment was ripe to crack down on the Russian-backed opposition – it would seem that he underestimated the extremes Putin was willing to go to help his old comrade and keep Ukraine under control.