Start Up No.893: how Facebook incites hate, pricing knee surgery, the data Google collects, Fancy Bear gets busy, Tinder Hunger Games, and more

Remember drones? Gartner’s given up on them. Photo by Ars Electronica on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not guilty. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What does knee surgery cost in the US? Few know, and that’s a problem • WSJ

Melanie Evans:


For nearly a decade, Gundersen Health System’s hospital in La Crosse, Wisconsin, boosted the price of knee-replacement surgery an average of 3% a year. By 2016, the average list price was more than $50,000, including the surgeon and anesthesiologist.

Yet even as administrators raised the price, they had no real idea what it cost to perform the surgery—the most common for hospitals in the U.S. outside of those related to childbirth. They set a price using a combination of educated guesswork and a canny assessment of market opportunity.

Prompted by rumblings from Medicare and private insurers over potential changes to payments, Gundersen decided to nail down the numbers. During an 18-month review, an efficiency expert trailed doctors and nurses to record every minute of activity and note instruments, resources and medicines used. The hospital tallied the time nurses spent wheeling around VCR carts, a mismatch of available postsurgery beds, unnecessarily costly bone cement and delays dispatching physical therapists to get patients moving.

The actual cost? $10,550 at most, including the physicians. The list price was five times that amount.

Competitive forces are out of whack in health care. Hospitals are often ignorant about their actual costs. Instead, they often increase prices to meet profit targets. Patients, especially those with insurance, often don’t know the price of a procedure and rarely shop around.

This dynamic is a driving force in the explosion in health-care spending in the U.S., which will soon reach close to 20% of GDP. Americans spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, even though they aren’t buying more health care overall. The rise in hospital prices has outpaced economywide inflation for decades. “When price isn’t tightly linked to cost, that is a sign that the market isn’t competitive,” said Harvard economist Leemore Dafny.


Heading towards 20% of GDP. Astonishing. (Here’s some more about surgical procedures in the US. Clearly, insurance companies charge through the nose for knee surgery because it’s in demand and so they can.)

In the UK, where the National Health Service means the government is a monopsony for health purchasing, spending is just under 10% of GDP, and maternal mortality is lower and life expectancy is longer.

Articles like this appearing in the WSJ – the paragon of right-wing thinking – might actually get some of them to think, though.
link to this extract

Facebook fueled anti-refugee attacks in Germany, new research suggests • New York Times

Amanda Taub and Max Fisher:


[The attack on a refugee family in the German town of] Altena exemplifies a phenomenon long suspected by researchers who study Facebook: that the platform makes communities more prone to racial violence. And, now, the town is one of 3,000-plus data points in a landmark study that claims to prove it.

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, researchers at the University of Warwick, scrutinized every anti-refugee attack in Germany, 3,335 in all, over a two-year span. In each, they analyzed the local community by any variable that seemed relevant. Wealth. Demographics. Support for far-right politics. Newspaper sales. Number of refugees. History of hate crime. Number of protests.

One thing stuck out. Towns where Facebook use was higher than average, like Altena, reliably experienced more attacks on refugees. That held true in virtually any sort of community — big city or small town; affluent or struggling; liberal haven or far-right stronghold — suggesting that the link applies universally.

Their reams of data converged on a breathtaking statistic: Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50%.

Nationwide, the researchers estimated in an interview, this effect drove one-tenth of all anti-refugee violence.

The uptick in violence did not correlate with general web use or other related factors; this was not about the internet as an open platform for mobilization or communication. It was particular to Facebook.

Other experts, asked to review the findings, called them credible, rigorous — and disturbing. The study bolstered a growing body of research, they said, finding that social media scrambles users’ perceptions of outsiders, of reality, even of right and wrong.


Fisher, one of the reporters, said “I can’t recall any statistic that has stopped me in my tracks quite like this one”, of the data that where per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50%.

This – now, this is serious.
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This military tech could finally help self-driving cars master snow • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:


The research conducted at the country’s National Laboratories is usually highly classified and specifically aimed at solving national security problems. But sometimes you get a swords-into-ploughshares moment. That’s the case here, as a startup called WaveSense looks to apply technology originally developed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory to detect buried mines and improvised explosive devices for use in self-driving cars.

If you want a car to drive itself, it has to know where it is in the world to a pretty high degree of accuracy. Until now, just about every variation of autonomous vehicle we’ve come across has done that through a combination of highly accurate GPS, an HD map, and some kind of sensor to detect the environment around it. Actually, you want more than one kind of sensor, because redundancy is going to be critical if humans are going to trust their lives to robot vehicles.

Most often, those sensors are a mix of optical cameras and lidar, both of which have pluses and minuses. But is a combination of lidar and camera truly redundant, if both are relying on reflected light? Other solutions have included far infrared, which works by detecting emitted light, but WaveSense’s approach is truly photon-independent. What’s more, it’s the first sensor we’ve come across that should be almost completely unfazed by snow.

That’s because it uses ground-penetrating radar (GPR), mounted underneath the vehicle, to sense the road beneath—now you can see where the military application was. The GPR scans the ground underneath it to a depth of around 10 feet (3m), running at a little over 120Hz to build up a picture of the subterranean world beneath it. As the car drives along, it compares that data to a map layer of already-collected GPR data for the road network and can place the car to within a couple of centimeters.

Yes, this requires pre-mapping, but so does lidar. And WaveSense says that remapping should be far less frequent as conditions under the road are less subject to change than they are above ground.


OK, but don’t we need them to master fair-weather roads first?
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Gartner’s Great Vanishing: some of 2017’s emerging techs just disappeared • The Register

Andrew Orlowski:


For a new technology to succeed, according to the mythological Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle, it must first climb the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” before falling into the Slough of Despond, or as Gartner calls it, the “Trough of Disillusionment”. There, after shaking off the Mud of Mockery or the Dust of Derision that is presumably found in the Trough, it must pick itself up and begin to ascend once again, up along the gentler “Slope of Enlightenment” before arriving, triumphant, onto the sunny uplands of the “Plateau of Productivity”. Only then can an Emerging Technology finally put down the backpack, open the Thermos flask, and tuck into a well-deserved packed lunch.

Nine emerging technologies identified last year by Gartner in the corresponding Hype Cycle report have vanished.

Some of these are quite significant. Last July, Machine Learning was two years away from the safety of the Plateau. But that’s disappeared. Its cousin Deep Learning is hanging perilously on, like so many trends, exactly where Gartner put it last year.

Last year, Edge Computing could be found toiling up the Western slope of the Peak of Disillusionment – but that has fallen out of sight, too. So has Human Augmentation, Augmented Data Discovery, and Knowledge Graphs.

And remember Drones? They’ve crashed.


So you can satisfy yourself, here’s 2017:

And 2018:

Technology evolution is stuck. Really stuck.

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Google Data Collection research • Digital Content Next


In “Google Data Collection,” Professor Douglas C. Schmidt, Professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt University, catalogs how much data Google is collecting about consumers and their most personal habits across all of its products and how that data is being tied together.

The key findings include:
• A dormant, stationary Android phone (with the Chrome browser active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, or at an average of 14 data communications per hour. In fact, location information constituted 35% of all the data samples sent to Google.
• For comparison’s sake, a similar experiment found that on an iOS device with Safari but not Chrome, Google could not collect any appreciable data unless a user was interacting with the device. Moreover, an idle Android phone running the Chrome browser sends back to Google nearly fifty times as many data requests per hour as an idle iOS phone running Safari.
• An idle Android device communicates with Google nearly 10 times more frequently as an Apple device communicates with Apple servers. These results highlighted the fact that Android and Chrome platforms are critical vehicles for Google’s data collection.  Again, these experiments were done on stationary phones with no user interactions. If you actually use your phone the information collection increases with Google.
• Google has the ability to associate anonymous data collected through passive means with the personal information of the user. Google makes this association largely through advertising technologies, many of which Google controls.


That is a lot of data collection, and the passive collection is remarkable. What is it particularly about the location data?
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New Russian hacking targeted Republican groups, Microsoft says • The New York Times


Microsoft Corporation said that it detected and seized websites that were created in recent weeks by hackers linked to the Russian unit formerly known as the G.R.U. The sites appeared meant to trick people into thinking they were clicking through links managed by the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, but were secretly redirected to web pages created by the hackers to steal passwords and other credentials.

Microsoft also found websites imitating the United States Senate, but not specific Senate offices or political campaigns.

The shift to attacking conservative think tanks underscores the Russian intelligence agency’s goals: to disrupt any institutions challenging Moscow and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The Hudson Institute has promoted programs examining the rise of kleptocracy in governments around the world, with Russia as a prime target. The International Republican Institute, which receives some funding from the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, has worked for decades in promoting democracy around the world.

“We are now seeing another uptick in attacks. What is particular in this instance is the broadening of the type of websites they are going after,” Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said Monday in an interview.

“These are organizations that are informally tied to Republicans,” he said, “so we see them broadening beyond the sites they have targeted in the past.”

The International Republican Institute’s board of directors includes several Republican leaders who have been highly critical of Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. Putin, including a summit meeting last month between the two leaders in Helsinki, Finland.


Not that Fancy Bear and its cohorts only limits itself to Republicans. It’s likely they were behind this cyberattack on a Democratic candidate in California last week.
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Model Tinder-scams men for date competition in Union Square • NY Mag

Madison Malone Kircher:


When Misha arrived in Union Square, he found a small crowd gathered around the stage. [Natasha] Aponte had told him to meet her at the front. “I guess [the crowd] was mostly male, but that didn’t immediately register to me,” Misha told Select All. “As I was watching the DJ play booming techno on a Sunday I did think it was odd that that many people were staying around and paying attention so attentively instead of just stopping and walking on.”

David, another man who showed up for a date, said he realized something was up when “the guy next to me went ‘Are you trying to meet up with a girl named Natasha?’” Eventually, “everyone started realizing what was going on.” “I got there and a DJ was playing and I found out that hundreds of other guys were also waiting for Natasha,” Spencer said. “I walked away when I found out it was a scam.” He heard people booing as he left Union Square.

Aponte eventually took the stage with a microphone to reveal her con. “She walked on, stated and explained the situation, and validated her actions by saying, ‘Won’t this be a great first-date story!’” Misha described it on Twitter as “a hunger games speech about what it’s gonna take to date her.”


Only a pity that she couldn’t arrange them to fight to the death. No doubt someone will figure that out sooner or later.
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The undertakers of Silicon Valley: how failure became big business • The Guardian

Adrian Daub:


Silicon Valley’s tolerance for failure has long sustained an obsession with youth. If a founder fails, tech discourse interprets it as a sign of young vigor. In a country in which 25-year-old white rapists are “still boys” and black 12-year-olds on the playground “look like adults”, the question of who gets to be a kid and who counts as a grownup is clearly charged with privilege.

In 2017, a chastened Travis Kalanick admitted: “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” Even in a place as chock-a-block with balding skateboarders and middle-aged trick-or-treaters as San Francisco, a 40-year-old CEO of a $15bn company casting himself as an overenthusiastic kid who just needs to get his shit together is a bit much.

Failing in Silicon Valley is often a prerogative of the young – or, in Kalanick’s case, the adolescent-acting. And people don’t talk about how much less sustainable it has become to be young in the Valley. One VC who back in the early aughts grew a tiny startup into an $80m company with more than 250 employees reminisced to me about the early days when “we just lived with our parents in Toronto”. “Our labor force was ourselves and we paid for the servers by credit card,” he continued. Then he reflected a moment. “That’s no longer possible, which I guess is what makes us necessary.”

But the thing about failing is that it seems to carry opposite meanings depending on who does it. If a traditional brick-and-mortar business hemorrhages money as unregulated digital competition moves in, then that’s just a sign that brick-and-mortar deserves to die. By contrast, if a disruptive new economy startup loses money by the billions, it’s a sign of how revolutionary and bold they are.


It’s one of those irregular verbs – “my internet startup began too early, your bricks-and-mortar business failed.”
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Why are record companies dumping their Spotify stock? • Office of Copyright

Stephen Carlisle:


if you hold shares in a company that is running a deficit of over €2bn, with annual losses approaching €400m, you might come to the conclusion that Spotify is not going to make any real profits for quite some time, and thus no dividend to you, the shareholder. It might also point towards the conclusion that Spotify’s continuing losses will not have an upward effect on the stock price, making it more prudent to sell now.

Could Spotify turn a profit by reducing its costs? Of course, and Spotify is always ready to point the finger at greedy copyright owners.

“We have incurred significant costs to license content and continue to pay royalties to music labels, publishers, and other copyright owners for such content. If we cannot successfully earn revenue at a rate that exceeds the operational costs, including royalty expenses, associated with our Service, we will not be able to achieve or sustain profitability.”

Boo! Hiss! Greedy copyright owners!

Except there’s this. In February of 2017, despite losing truckloads of money for years, Spotify found it necessary to open offices in New York City. And not just in any old office building. It rented space in the newly rebuilt World Trade Center. 13 According to Digital Music News, this is 478,000 square feet of office space spread over a total of 14 floors. This was not enough. Spotify later signed an option to take on 100,000 more square feet. 14 I suggest that you click on the link provided in the endnote and take a look at the pictures.

Nice pool table, guys.

The cost of this? Again according to Digital Music News:

$2.77m a month, or $33.29m a year. Over the 17 years lease, more than $566m in rent; $31m in upfront payments. To this we can add the fact that:

In 2015, executive and board member pay was $16.9m, an increase of 300% over the previous year. In 2015, the average Spotify employee made $150,000. During 2015, Spotify lost $253.8m.

It does not seem from these numbers that Spotify is interested in reducing its costs, if it has to come by way of reducing their prestigious digs and creature comforts. If you are a record company, and you know this from close up observation, it might make sense to sell your shares.


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Android users and men far less likely to make in-app mobile gaming purchases than iOS users and women • Android Police

Rose Behar:


iOS users and women are much more likely to make in-app purchases than Android users and men. Liftoff reports that the 21% IAP conversion rates for iOS users are nearly double that of Android users, which rest at 10.8%. While it acknowledges that its own data, drawn from 350 gaming apps (58% iOS and 42% Android), may overemphasize the disconnect, the findings are backed up by evidence from other sources, as well.

App market data provider App Annie reports that Android users accounted for 70% of total app downloads in 2017, but generated only 34% of total consumer app spend. Still, the sheer size of the Android market — in 2017, Google reported over 2 billion monthly active devices — means mobile game marketers aren’t going to give up on the platform any time soon.

As for the gender split, Liftoff’s data showed that IAP conversion rates for women are 26% higher than for men, and that the install-to-purchase rate for women is an impressive 79% higher than for men.


In many ways, not a surprise; this has been a consistent pattern for years, and there’s no reason it would change.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.893: how Facebook incites hate, pricing knee surgery, the data Google collects, Fancy Bear gets busy, Tinder Hunger Games, and more

  1. Hallelujah, let’s all rejoice in the second coming of the sensible plastic-back phone. It’s from Xiaomi of course, and wants to be an ersatz flagship at $300 for an SD845. I’d hazard that while the SoC is flagship, the rest (screen, sound, camera) will test mid-range. Luckily, so do the large battery, the SD slot, and the audio jack; and midrange pics these days no longer mean unusable pixel salad, but 2yo-flasghip-equivalent – when lit enough.
    It still has a notch *and* a lip -ugly and a stupid combination-, a non-removable battery, top-heavy MIUI, and I think wireless charging is missing. So not perfectly no-nonsense, but better than most flagships.

    I’ll probably recommend it to people who want to spend more than the Redmi Note 5’s $150, but have really no reason to. The fashion-conscious and photographers will still be directed to last year’s branded flagship, this year’s for the profligate. And I personally still want a phablet, Mi Max 3 or Honor Note 10.

    Note that Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2S has some similarities with an 845 at a low price too, but a nicer design (no notch just a lip, wireless charging, ceramic instead of plastic back) but some extra nonsense (no jack, no SD, 20% smaller battery). I’d say it’s more for the form-over-function crowd.

    If I were OnePlus I’d be worried. There’s a lot lot of ink spent on Android vs Apple, the real fun is in the internecine Android jockeying. I’m wondering where this puts the gamer phones too, this one also has liquid cooling, though not the garish design.

  2. Oh, and I’m running a tally of which phones keep FM radio and the Infrared blaster. Strangely, that’s rarely mentioned in reviews, even missing in spec sheets. This one seems to have FM, not sure about IR.

  3. Update: Xiaomi is gracing us with the alternative Poco Launcher, a more Android-like thing (MIUI’s default launcher is an iOS rip-off) with an app drawer and faster feel, and, surely a nod to its adolescent audience, the ability to fully hide apps (not just put them in the junk folder, not just lock them behind a password; but fully disappear them until a second password is typed). For all those alternate Instagram accounts and porn browsers… and banking apps.

  4. Same cautionary remark as always: Google Play is only 50% of Android ‘s app revenue, the rest is Chinese app stores. This isn’t obvious from te chart, but actual consumer spend on apps is slightly higher for Andtoid (incl. China) than for iOS.

  5. I’m still convinced the next great device format is glasses, and I hate Google for having ruined it from the very inception (not just a movie !). I want my heads-up realtime translation and maps when I’m abroad, my overlaid notification ticker, my always-listening assistant, my always-playing music and podcasts and radio; and if the tech allows, my browsing books and vids.
    It could probably do AR and VR too, but who cares ?

  6. re: drones, I bought one this summer, I figured I was losing geek points for not having one. A cheap $60 affair, Xiaomi of course, just to get a feel for the tech.
    Meh. The official goal was to take holiday pictures/vids from original angles. By the time I got the drone positioned, the action was over, and you can only ask the 6yo to do his ninja-dive into the pool so many times. The noise is very annoying too.
    The 6yo had fun playing with it, luckily the thing is resilient, and has autonomous take-off, landing, and hover functions, plus a handful of dedicated pre-programmed acrobatics. Compared to the never-ending fun of legos, he didn’t get $60 of entertainment out of it, but it was a change. The older kids (8, 12 and 15) couldn’t be bothered.
    Same thing happened with the Gear VR. The little one had a few minutes of fun with it, it’s been gathering dust since.

    If I were working in consumer tech, I’d be focusing on costs and marketing and execution, I’m not sure there’s a rabbit to be pulled out of the innovation hat yet. Glasses, people !

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