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The World & The Limited Internet

Frenemies with Zuckistan

If the hypothetical world embodied by Edward Snowden’s political philosophy and ethical approach to data ownership is “the glorious republic of Snowdonia” then Mark Zuckerberg’s is “the unaccountable virtual lizard party”. Zuckzilla (think duckzilla but with more data driven psycho-political warfare) recently shed a big messy layer of skin in Australia when a great deal of content was taken offline down-under in response to new inbound legislation. 

New Australian laws would force Facebook to pay News sites for their content, effectively clearly deciding on whether or not the social media platform is also a distributor or publisher of content; as opposed to some sort of impartial platform which has no responsibility for what’s shared, which we all know is horseshit when you really think about it. 

Rather than pay people for the content that drives the Behavioral Surplus Extraction process (cf. Surveillance Capitalism) Mark slivered on over and took all Australian users into a sort of newsless Facebook experience. But wait, I hear you cry, there’s *no* news on Facebook, it’s just videos of your weird uncle *revealing* to his 14 YouTube subscription bots that Vaccines are Flat or whatever… alas, there is still some quality content out there (*clears throat*).

So Aussie Facebookers will no longer see news from *news sites* or be able to share it. Although, is it really cut and dry what counts as news? Of course it isn’t; so Facebook has also shut off a bunch of government agencies, charities and NGOs. Which has pissed off Australians from all walks of their Mad Max landscape riddled with imminent death, exactly as much as you might imagine.

There are signals other countries might follow Australia’s lead here… 

The US

The Lone-Star Without the State

The suffering of millions of Texans is in part due to the state’s utilities policies. In-keeping with the ‘Lone-Star’ approach, the state of Texas has a power grid which is effectively isolated from the rest of the US. There are plenty of good technical reasons for some level of segmentation of power grids, however, in the case of Texas, the reasons are entirely political. Maintaining a grid that is almost entirely separate from the rest of the country’s is to avoid federal oversight of the energy market.

Look, energy generation and markets are complex, so if you want the short version: Texans are without power and heat because politicians allowed profiteering and ignored the warning signs. If you want the long version, strap-in, we make no apologies for the nerdiness of the following, Will literally has a Master’s degree in this shit.

Power generation and supply is so complex because we just aren’t very good at storing electrical power; we need to generate it and consume it instantaneously. This means that within a power grid, supply must be very almost equal to demand at all times. That’s why you build grids in the first place; as you add more generators, the grid gets progressively more stable as there are more energy sources to pick up the slack.

In most energy markets you pay generators for what they generate, but you also pay some generators to sit there and be ready, all the time. You could argue that’s inefficient, which is effectively what the Texas regulators did, so it doesn’t pay for any of the time in which generators aren’t actively contributing to the grid. That means no-one is waiting to pick up the slack, there is no motivation for building excess generation capacity, and a super-competitive market pushes prices to a point where there is little margin, or indeed motivation, to fund maintenance of the infrastructure. This means the state sails alarmingly close to the wind. For example on the day of highest demand in 2019, at 74,531MW, the state had just 78,000MW of capacity, meaning that if one large power source had failed, it had the potential to collapse the entire grid.

For at least 10 years, experts have been warning the Texas energy regulator that the system was close to collapse, but the warnings went unheeded. The energy mix in Texas is predominantly natural gas generators, with a pretty chunky proportion of wind turbines. Some of the gas generation failed because of poor maintenance and lack of weatherproofing, causing a domino-like fault in the grid which at one point left 3 million without power. 

Republicans, including congressman Dan Crenshaw, have been quick to blame “frozen wind turbines” for the outages, much to the delight of the left who have guffawed in these morons’ faces. Well, sorry gang, he’s partly correct. 

Undoubtedly, it’s not as simple as many on the right are framing the issue, the main issue was with gas generators, but he is correct in principle that as the proportion of energy generation in a grid from renewable sources increases, the grid’s stability decreases, it’s just an under-nuanced understanding. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, renewables generate power when the conditions are correct, not when demand increases. Secondly, ‘old-fashioned’ fossil fueled sources have huge rotational inertia in the form of rapidly-spinning, incredibly heavy generators which can respond to tiny changes in demand using their stored rotational energy, which renewables can’t. They’re also correct that wind turbines built for the high-temperature conditions of Texas are susceptible to ice build-ups, and that energy storage in the form of batteries or super-capacitors had massively reduced effectiveness due to their low efficiency in the cold.

Which is exactly why you build large, diverse grids, with excess capacity and storage, then connect them with interconnectors, the exact opposite of what Texas did.

A bizarre story that’s come out of the mess is that of energy retailer Griddy. Its model is highly unusual: customers pay a monthly membership, then buy energy at the wholesale prices. This often means that they get very cheap power, or even get paid to use energy at times of low demand. It also means that when market prices soared during outages to 30 times normal rates, so did their bills. The company reached out to its customers urging them to quickly change providers!

Meanwhile Ted Cruz, a Texan Senator, has buggered off to Cancun while millions of his state’s residents go without power or water. We hope the electorate remembers this and would like to reiterate the quips of those observing that Cruz had no difficulty crossing a border looking for a better life for his family. 

Hit Send

You ever have that moment when you’re doing a bank transfer and you realise just before you hit confirm that you included an extra zero? Citibank did not have that moment until a few days after processing interest payments to some of its creditors when they realised they had sent not $8m but $900m. Just a casual billion dollar whoopsie.

Some of the creditors returned the money after realising the error, but others didn’t, seeing how the money related to a loan made to the troubled cosmetic manufacturer Revlon, which is in much more trouble now than when the loan was made.

Citibank lost a lawsuit this week seeking to secure the remaining $500m that has been returned on the grounds that the beneficiaries were owed the money and didn’t initially know it had been wired by mistake! So next time you screw up at work and your boss has a go at you… remember that you didn’t just throw away a billion dollars.

How Does He Sleep at Night? Ep. 4

This week in our recurring segment featuring the antics of pillow-czar Mike ‘crack-addict-turned-CEO-turned-insurrectionist’ Lindell: Dominion Voting Systems teased that it will sue Lindell “imminently”, cementing attorney Tom Clare as quite the lover of note. We can’t take anymore legal foreplay Clare! Just sue him already Clare, sue him hard, sue him like he likes it! No, seriously, Lindell actually does like it: he keeps literally asking to be sued. Lindell is clearly the sort of man who would smoke a bowl whilst slathering himself in BBQ marinade if he ever found himself face-to-face with a tiger. And in a way, aren’t we all? Aren’t we all just slathering ourselves in metaphorical marinade, awaiting the tigers? I digress…

Other Worlds

The Triumph of Perseverance and Ingenuity

The latest Mars Rover successfully touched-down on the red planet as a poetic example of what can be achieved in unusual circumstances, with a little determination and a little bit of *a world class team and billions of dollars*. Perseverance, or Percy as it’s endearingly known by its creators, launched in July of 2020 and cruised on over some 130 million miles at about 24,600 miles per hour (~ Mach 32). Perseverance had a launch mass of over a tonne (1,025kg;2,260 lb) and was designed to jettison hundreds of pounds of ballast weights specifically to orient and balance the capsule at various stages throughout entering the Martian atmosphere. The craft includes a little helicopter called Ingenuity which, god willing, is aiming to perform the first powered flight on another planet. Since Mars has a thinner atmosphere, the rotor blades will spin about 5 times faster (~2,400 Rotations Per Minute) than those of your typical Earthly helicopter (~500 RPM). Ingenuity will fly ahead and try to warn Percy of any obstacles or hazards that might otherwise go unnoticed like some sort of airborne martian familiar. Read more here.  

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about this epic accomplishment, here’s a 20 minute video of someone explaining it all with an entertaining French accent. In addition to all the myriad single-points-of-failure which the engineers have to hope don’t sabotage the mission, it’s stunning to think about the planning that goes into getting data around individual portions of the technology; there’s a camera that points up and will record the opening of the supersonic parachute, this camera won’t do a lot else. It was due to images from a previous rover’s landing from a similar camera that the team knew to reinforce the parachute in certain places, due to some unexpected oscillations they observed in the footage. 

The UK

PTO for the Ubermensch

The Uber drivers of the UK have been legally recognised as people (deserving of holiday time and wage protections). The UK’s Supreme Caught has sided with common sense that those driving for Uber regularly are not self-employed, since they are working to the schedule of the app and without much say in the distribution of fares between themselves and their not-so-benevolent overlords.

It remains to be seen if Uber drivers in the US will be legally recognised as people deserving of healthcare and other such basic needs (those in the UK never had to worry about such basic freedoms due to the NHS) before their roles are automated away entirely. What a time to be alive. We were promised flying cars and we’ve got late-stage-capitalism’s finest algorithmically enforced ride sharing feudalism.

Driving Home for Cummings

Court documents have revealed that ex-special advisor to the PM Dominic Cummings’ level of belief in his self-importance is such that he will harm legal cases against him to boast of how instrumental to the Johnson government he was.

The case in question relates to £564,393 of public money that was handed out in an untendered contract to a group of Cummings’ friends for their research efforts. He said that it was “nonsense” that his friendship with the owners of the company influenced the awarding of the contract, before going on to heap praise on them, underlined the importance of working with those you trust, and described himself as the “driving decision-maker”. 

His get-out was that as a special advisor, he was not allowed to instruct civil servants. Which he then immediately blew by boasting: “However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.”

The company, Public First, essentially took on the role of conducting focus groups sounding out the government messaging, the feedback from which they spun to sound like unanimous support for the government. To quote a leaked email from the Cabinet Office they were: “way, way too close to No. 10 to be objective.” I guess if you think you aren’t quite in enough of an echo chamber, you can always consciously construct your own.

I Choo-Choo-Choose Pointless Local Conflict

A row has broken out between two railway museums in the Northeast of England over where the world’s oldest passenger locomotive should be displayed. For the last 163 years it’s been resident in Darlington where Locomotion No 1 was originally designed and built. Its owners, the National Railway Museum, have had the audacity to ask that it should be moved to one of their premises… ten miles up the road. Naturally, that has caused fury to a level that really can only be seen amongst railway enthusiasts. If one were that way inclined, one would suggest that they… blow off some steam…

Throw Away the Key!

Are you sitting at home reading this, resenting those closest to you? Has spending months in lockdown made you realise it wasn’t love keeping you together, just a fear of the unknown? Do you despise the way they brush their teeth? Apparently not as much as an unnamed man in Sussex who, having been wanted on recall to prison, turned himself in to Police in order to get some “peace and quiet”. He told Police he would rather be in prison than spend more time in lockdown with those he was living with.

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

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