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…

22 June 2022

Bloomberg: “The Fed hasn’t Fixed its Worst Blunder since the 1970s”

The thing the economists’ models omit are the unforeseeable events that have a way of occurring in this thing we call “history”. Despite the fulfillment of my prediction last year that the Fed would have a real problem with inflation expectations if there was a war, people still seem to be assuming that global economic life will return to “normal” (meaning 2019) starting very soon.

Team Transitory thinks that not only inflation is transitory. They think the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are transitory, too. But the striking thing about all three is precisely that they just keep going, in defiance of Americans’ attention-deficit disorder.

Has China’s “Zero Covid” policy miraculously prevailed over the omicron variants of the virus? Only in Beijing’s propaganda. In both the capital and Shanghai, they are back to mass testing and restrictions.

Is an end to the war in Ukraine imminent? Only in the imaginings of those who have insisted all along that Ukraine would win it. On the bloody battlefields of the Donbas, Russia is gaining ground in a brutal war of attrition.

The 1970s are here to remind us that one damned disaster leads to another — and sometimes more than one — and that’s what makes it much harder than it looks in an economics textbook for a central bank to recover from a big monetary-policy mistake.

Niall Ferguson

Interesting historical perspective on a previous phase of high inflation in the US economy, and how the Fed failed to keep it under control because of political pressure and delayed and insufficient measures. As Romania was behind the Iron Curtain back then, I have little knowledge of that period, but I remember my parents constantly complaining how standards of living worsened considerably in the ‘80s. I used to think this was entirely because of the mismanagement of the Communist regime, but perhaps our economy felt the adverse effects of the global economic shocks and geopolitical instability as well.

21 June 2022

Bloomberg: “Mark Zuckerberg is Blowing Up Instagram to Try and Catch TikTok”

Over 14 years, since the invention of its news feed, Facebook has become extremely good at one thing: showing people what they definitely want to see, based on their past behavior and online activity. Facebook ranks your friends based on how much you engage with them and orders their posts accordingly. If you search for cake decorating videos on Instagram, expect to see more in your suggested follows the next time you log on. If you shop online for ankle boots, they’ll turn up in your feed. The upside of that kind of algorithm is a $116 billion advertising business. The downside is, people get bored.

TikTok delivers a level of algorithmic magic that’s a step beyond, introducing people to stuff they had no idea they would be entertained by—which has the effect of boosting no-name stars into the spotlight as long as they’re creating great content. Achieving that same effect has become a top priority, Zuckerberg said during a recent earnings call: I think about the AI that we’re building not just as a recommendation system for short-form video, but as a discovery engine that can show you all of the most interesting content that people have shared across our systems.

A company as big as Meta, with 3.6 billion users across Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, has lots of ways to push features on people. Reels now appear in every Instagram user’s feed. Once someone clicks on a Reel, they’re suddenly in a full-screen mode where swiping up or down only gets you to more Reels. This design tweak can be jarring, like turning a corner in a quiet art gallery and finding yourself in the middle of a dance party.

Sarah Frier & Brad Stone

As others have pointed out, one of Facebook’s biggest issues going forward is simply… that neither the company nor its founder Mark Zuckerberg have actually delivered any original concept since its inception. After its initial success, it has relied on either acquiring the current popular app (Instagram and WhatsApp) or copying their features when it failed to purchase them (Stories from Snapchat, now Reels from TikTok – ironically, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom suggested to his superiors at Facebook that they should consider buying it back when it was still called Musical.ly).

18 June 2022

Bloomberg Quicktake: “How Airships could overcome a Century of Failure”

A new breed of airships seeks to take flight and provide a greener solution for both luxury travel and heavy industry. But is the business case for bringing them back enough to overcome a troubled past?

I have always been fascinated with airships/dirigibles/zeppelins and lamented their absence from the world’s transportation infrastructure. Much like nuclear power, their public perception has been tainted by high-profile accidents such as the crash of the Hindenburg. But, as the video above shows, airships face real engineering challenges making them less convenient and economically viable than available alternatives. While they are more flexible in terms of takeoff and landing and consume considerably less fuel than airplanes, they are also slower, less maneuverable in flight because their large aerodynamic profiles make them more susceptible to air currents, and have lower capacity for carrying people and cargo.

17 June 2022

World Health Organization: “14.9 million excess deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021”

Excess mortality is calculated as the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic based on data from earlier years.

Excess mortality includes deaths associated with COVID-19 directly (due to the disease) or indirectly (due to the pandemic’s impact on health systems and society). Deaths linked indirectly to COVID-19 are attributable to other health conditions for which people were unable to access prevention and treatment because health systems were overburdened by the pandemic. The estimated number of excess deaths can be influenced also by deaths averted during the pandemic due to lower risks of certain events, like motor-vehicle accidents or occupational injuries.

Most of the excess deaths (84%) are concentrated in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Some 68% of excess deaths are concentrated in just 10 countries globally. Middle-income countries account for 81% of the 14.9 million excess deaths (53% in lower-middle-income countries and 28% in upper-middle-income countries) over the 24-month period, with high-income and low-income countries each accounting for 15% and 4%, respectively.

The estimates for a 24-month period (2020 and 2021) include a breakdown of excess mortality by age and sex. They confirm that the global death toll was higher for men than for women (57% male, 43% female) and higher among older adults. The absolute count of the excess deaths is affected by the population size. The number of excess deaths per 100,000 gives a more objective picture of the pandemic than reported COVID-19 mortality data.

Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Mortality Assessment

Tracking excess mortality as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is an important tool for assessing various health measures and their effectiveness. This study however arrives at some questionable conclusions and has been discussed critically on Twitter.

13 June 2022

BBC News: “January 6 hearing: Trump accused of attempted coup”

Footage was aired of testimony by former US Attorney General Bill Barr saying he had repeatedly told the former president that he had lost the election and his claims of fraud were wrong.

We can’t live in a world where the incumbent administration stays in power based on its view, unsupported by specific evidence, that there was fraud in the election, said the former attorney general.

The hearing also featured a recording of testimony by Ivanka Trump, the ex-president’s daughter, saying she accepted Mr Barr’s rejection of her father’s conspiracy theory.

And there was an audible gasp in the committee room as Ms Cheney read an account that claimed Mr Trump, when told the rioters were chanting for Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged for refusing to block the election results, suggested that he deserves it.

Mr Thompson, the committee’s chairman and a Mississippi lawmaker, told the hearing: Jan 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup, a brazen attempt, as one writer put it shortly after Jan 6, to overthrow the government.

The violence was no accident. It was Trump’s last stand.

Ms Cheney, the vice-chair of the committee and a Wyoming congresswoman, said: Those who invaded our Capitol and battled law enforcement for hours were motivated by what President Trump had told them: that the election was stolen and that he was the rightful president.

President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.

Jude Sheerin

I can’t say I have followed these proceedings too closely, but one thing struck me as I listened to a podcast on the subject: the emphasis on how well the ‘narrative’ of the hearing was laid out for the public. The idea instantly grated me; presentation does matter naturally, but if you’re relying solely on presentation to make a case… you’ve already lost. The public has a short memory, and Trump has always relied on his ability to spin a better – or more outrageous – story to shift public attention and get himself out of trouble.

12 June 2022

The Wall Street Journal: “Handle the India-U.S. Relationship with Care”

But an intense week of meetings in Bangalore and Delhi with politicians, think tankers, religious leaders and journalists made clear that while Americans and Indians share strategic and economic interests, and we both value democracy, we remain divided by important differences in values and perceptions. Unless managed carefully, these differences could derail U.S.-India cooperation at a critical time.

Americans and Indians often see the same problem in very different ways. India, for example, does not see Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a threat to world order. While Americans have been disturbed by India’s continued willingness to buy oil from Russia, Indians resent the West’s attempt to rally global support for what many here see as a largely Western problem in Ukraine. Pointing out that Europeans scarcely noticed China’s attacks on Indian frontier posts in 2020, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, last week that Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems.

Walter Russell Mead

On some level I can relate to the point that states far from the conflict zone perceive the war in Ukraine as a local matter between Europe and Russia and that it’s not in their best interest to take sides. On the other hand, whenever crisis break out in other parts of the world, who do people turn to for help? Europe and the United States. If the West should care and distribute assistance around the world, it’s only fair that the rest of the world pay heed to problems in the West and contribute to a solution.

10 June 2022

TechCrunch: “Apple’s Continuity Camera lets you use your iPhone as a webcam”

Apple is improving its webcam on the shiny new M2 MacBooks, but for those of us still chugging along on our existing MacBooks, we’ll be able to use our iPhones as webcams (… if we don’t want to sneak a look at our phone during a Zoom meeting).

Later this year, Apple will begin selling a Belkin mount that lets you clip your iPhone to the top of your MacBook. Then, while on FaceTime calls from your laptop, you’ll be able to use iPhone camera functions like portrait mode, center stage and studio light, a new feature that brightens your face and darkens the background behind you. You can also use your iPhone camera on other MacOS apps, like Zoom.

Amanda Silberling

From the unparalleled innovative company that revealed the amazing solution: ‘need to unlock your phone while wearing a mask? just buy a Watch!’, now comes another brilliant solution: ‘need better video calling quality? just buy another iPhone!’ Because, let’s be honest, who is going to strap their iPhone to a laptop for hours and stop checking their notifications and social media during online meetings?

09 June 2022

World Politics Review: “The EU Braces for a New Fight—Over Treaties”

Macron seemed to lose interest in the conference once it became clear that it was unraveling into a messy affair that to many observers seemed designed to fail. If the conference had wrapped up just a few months ago, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and while uncertainty remained over Macron’s April reelection bid, its outcome might indeed have been ignored, as had long been expected. But against the backdrop of a war that has given new momentum to efforts to transform the EU in ways previously unimaginable, and with Macron having accumulated a lot of political capital to spend with his reelection victory, the timing of the conference’s conclusion lent itself to more ambitious visions.

Unsurprisingly, then, Macron gave a full-throated endorsement to the conference’s recommendation for treaty change in a Europe Day speech in Strasbourg. The changes, if ratified by national parliaments—and by referenda in some countries such as Ireland—would not only bring an end to national vetoes, it could also include a new idea crafted by Macron, rather than the conference’s citizen participants: an outer circle of EU-affiliated states that are not quite ready for membership or are not necessarily interested in applying for it. Macron suggested that this European Political Community could potentially include Ukraine and the U.K.

Dave Keating

There was a time years ago when I was also fully in favor of abolishing vetoes in European Union decision making. Perhaps I’m getting older and more conservative in my views, but now I’m almost entirely in the opposite camp. At a time when the European Union and its members are facing multiple urgent crisis, from global warming and energy independence to the security and humanitarian aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, diverting time and effort to lengthy negotiations about treaty change seems counterproductive – even downright irresponsible. And that’s before taking into account that these negotiations may fail to deliver consensus – in the years it would take to finalize them, multiple countries could change political leadership, and the new governments may not agree to the outcomes settled by their predecessors – or the final texts may simply fail to get approval, as it happened with the proposed EU Constitution in 2005 – which, ironically for Macron who is championing these changes, failed in France.

04 June 2022

Eudaimonia and Co: “It’s Not Just You, America Really Sucks Right Now”

That brings me to my second observation about America. Inequality has a corrosive effect on society. It leads to distrust, suspicion, hostility. To broken social bonds and a sense of alienation between people. And you feel all that in America, viscerally. It’s a deeply weird place. Just to be in. This is hard to describe. It’s kind of a sociocultural thing. A kind of…let me just give you an example.

So there I am, walking into this café, or the other one, every single day. It’s not like I’m exactly easy to miss, I’m the guy in the sunglasses and leather jacket and boots, no matter what the weather is, because the light can (gulp) kill me. And all the people at the cafes — these were both busy cafes — would do this incredibly weird thing which only ever happens in America. They’d feign ignorance.

Oh, hey, what would you like? Can I get a name for that order? My man, this is literally the fourteenth time we’ve seen each other this week. Why are we playing this game of make believe. I know who you are! And I know you who I am. And I know you know that both us know who each other are. What the hell is even…

It’s bizarre. This is social norm in America, and it’s a surreal one. We got back to Europe, and went to the little café we go to, and the little shop next to it, and after a year away, everyone recognized us, and said an enthusiastic and friendly hello. We had fun and interesting chats with all of them about what had been happening over the past year. Note the contrast.

Umair Haque

Interesting anecdote about daily life in the Unites States. While I can’t confirm the American side of this story (I have never travelled to the US, nor do I intend to), I do have a similar experience from Paris: during my time in the French capital in 2012, I regularly went to lunch in an Asian fast food run by a small family, mom and dad and two teenage kids, a boy and a girl. It was very close to the office, the menus were cheap, the food good and in large portions. Two years later, I returned to the city and the same office, and went looking for the same fast-food place at lunch. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they remembered me and offered rice as a side-dish without me saying anything – I always chose rice before, as I tried the noodles once and disliked them.