Start Up No.917: Google searches for the future, Walmart goes blockchain-y, teens on Kavanaugh, AirPower lives?, Instagram’s real CEO, and more

Wisconsin attempts to “get out the vote” worked in a way they might not have expected. Photo by AIGA Wisconsin on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Laugh all you like. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google search revamp: Expect to see ton of new features on your phone • ZDNet

Liam Tung:


Google has renamed its news feed on the mobile app ‘Discover’ and is bringing the feature to its homepage on all mobile browsers.

The revamped mobile experience is being rolled out as part of Google’s 20th anniversary, and builds on the feed introduced to its mobile app last year.

The feed contains a list of suggested news items beneath the search box in the app. But until now people who primarily use Google search through a browser didn’t see Google’s suggestions.

Bringing the Discover feed to all mobile browsers will mark a significant change in how iPhone and Android users engage with the site, which Google wants people to use not just for search but as a general discovery tool.

The new mobile site is rolling out in the next few weeks, according to Google.


There’s a (typically?) slightly strange blogpost from Google about hitting 20 years, where the faintly worrying part is that it says it’s going to have a “fundamental” shift in search which have “the shift from answers to journeys”. (The entire focus is on mobile; the desktop is forgotten.) It’s written by the head of search, rather than Sundar Pichai or those McCavitys, Brin and Page.
link to this extract

How Russia helped swing the election for Trump • The New Yorker

Jane Mayer:


Politicians may be too timid to explore the subject, but a new book from, of all places, Oxford University Press promises to be incendiary. “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, dares to ask—and even attempts to answer—whether Russian meddling had a decisive impact in 2016. Jamieson offers a forensic analysis of the available evidence and concludes that Russia very likely delivered Trump’s victory.

The book, which is coming out less than two months before the midterm elections, at a moment when polls suggest that some sixty% of voters disapprove of Trump, may well reignite the question of Trump’s electoral legitimacy. The President’s supporters will likely characterize the study as an act of partisan warfare. But in person Jamieson, who wears her gray hair in a pixie cut and favors silk scarves and matronly tweeds, looks more likely to suspend a troublemaker than to be one. She is seventy-one, and has spent forty years studying political speeches, ads, and debates. Since 1993, she has directed the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at Penn, and in 2003 she co-founded, a nonpartisan watchdog group. She is widely respected by political experts in both parties, though her predominantly male peers have occasionally mocked her scholarly intensity, calling her the Drill Sergeant. As Steven Livingston, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, puts it, “She is the epitome of a humorless, no-nonsense social scientist driven by the numbers. She doesn’t bullshit. She calls it straight.”

Indeed, when I met recently with Jamieson, in a book-lined conference room at the Annenberg Center, in Philadelphia, and asked her point-blank if she thought that Trump would be President without the aid of Russians, she didn’t equivocate. “No,” she said, her face unsmiling. Clearly cognizant of the gravity of her statement, she clarified, “If everything else is a constant? No, I do not.”


It is quite a claim, indeed. But so few votes – 80,000 in three states – made the difference in the 2016 election that the only question is how little effect Russia’s messing about would have needed to make the crucial difference.
link to this extract

Walmart is betting on the blockchain to improve food safety • TechCrunch

Ron Miller:


Most supply chains are bogged down in manual processes. This makes it difficult and time consuming to track down an issue should one like the E. coli romaine lettuce problem from last spring rear its head. By placing a supply chain on the blockchain, it makes the process more traceable, transparent and fully digital. Each node on the blockchain could represent an entity that has handled the food on the way to the store, making it much easier and faster to see if one of the affected farms sold infected supply to a particular location with much greater precision.

Walmart has been working with IBM for over a year on using the blockchain to digitize the food supply chain process. In fact, supply chain is one of the premiere business use cases for blockchain (beyond digital currency). Walmart is using the IBM Food Trust Solution, specifically developed for this use case…

…Before moving the process to the blockchain, it typically took approximately 7 days to trace the source of food. With the blockchain, it’s been reduced to 2.2 seconds. That substantially reduces the likelihood that infected food will reach the consumer…

…Suppliers don’t have to be blockchain experts by any means. They simply have to know how to upload data to the blockchain application.

“IBM will offer an onboarding system that orients users with the service easily. Think about when you get a new iPhone – the instructions are easy to understand and you’re quickly up and running. That’s the aim here. Essentially, suppliers will need a smart device and internet to participate,” [IBM’s sr VP for Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain Bridget van Kralingen] said.


IBM’s involvement gets my spidey-sense tingling: it’s after anything that sounds big and futuristic. Even if this could be done with some RFID tags, a SIM card and a database. (A blockchain is just a database, in fact, but with a traceable update record.) Let’s check back in a year or so.
link to this extract

Creating new policies together • Twitter

Vijaya Gadde is Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead at Twitter, and Del Harvey is its VP of Trust & Safety:


In the past, we’ve created our rules with a rigorous policy development process; it involves in-depth research and partnership with the members of our Trust and Safety Council and other experts to ensure these policies best serve every person on the service. Now, we’re trying something new by asking everyone for feedback on a policy before it’s part of the Twitter Rules.

For the last three months, we have been developing a new policy to address dehumanizing language on Twitter. Language that makes someone less than human can have repercussions off the service, including normalizing serious violence.


There’s a very quick survey for you to take; open until October 9. Wonder if Trump calling people “dogs” applies, since it’s certainly dehumanising.
link to this extract

The Kavanaugh accusations: what teens think • The Atlantic

Joe Pinsker:


Stephen L. Miller, a writer for Fox News’s website, tweeted that the allegations didn’t amount to sexual assault, but rather “drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven.” The radio-show host and columnist Dennis Prager advised his readers not to be shocked if a future Republican nominee “is accused of sexual misconduct … from when he was in elementary school.” Going back to an even earlier developmental stage to make her point, the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wondered, “What’s next, his potty training?” On Instagram, Donald Trump Jr. engaged in his own infantilizing of Ford’s accusations, likening the scene she described to the result of a schoolyard crush.

These statements were intended to diminish the seriousness of what Ford alleged happened, but, intentionally or not, they also diminish a whole category of humans: teenagers. And many teenagers, as they themselves are proud to report, have a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of sex and consent—one that invalidates the low expectations that so many adults appear to have of them.

As they’ve watched the week’s news unfold, some of them have gotten frustrated. “They just keep saying ‘He was in high school—boys will be boys,’” says Maurielle, a 17-year-old from Houston. “But I’m in high school—I don’t want that to happen to me.” She went on, “It feels alienating reading what’s happening, because they’re blaming so much on the fact that they were in high school and they were young.” Julianna, a 17-year-old from outside of Pittsburgh, said she also rejected what she called “the whole ‘But maybe they didn’t know better at that age’ argument.” (I am referring to Maurielle, Julianna, and the other teenagers interviewed for this article only by their first name, to protect their identities.)


What these teenagers think of Kavanaugh will colour what they think of the people who (one expects, with some confidence) will confirm him. If you ever wondered how politicians lose the trust of those they are meant to work for, it’s by actions like this.
link to this extract

Inside the private Justice Department meeting that could lead to new investigations of Facebook, Google and other tech giants • The Washington Post

Brian Fung and Tony Romm:


A meeting of the country’s top federal and state law enforcement officials on Tuesday could presage sweeping new investigations of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and their tech industry peers, stemming from lingering frustrations that these companies are too big, fail to safeguard users’ private data and don’t cooperate with legal demands.

The gathering at the Justice Department had been designed to focus on social media platforms and the ways in which they moderate content online, following complaints from President Trump and other top Republicans that Silicon Valley companies deliberately seek to silence conservative users and views online.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened the meeting by raising questions of possible ideological bias among the tech companies and sought to bring the conversation back to that topic at least twice more, according to D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.

But the discussion proved far more wide-ranging, as attorneys general from eight states and the District — and officials from five others — steered the conversation toward the privacy practices of Silicon Valley. Those in the meeting did not zero in on specific business tactics, but they did cover such issues as how companies collect user data and what they do with it once the information is in their hands.

“We were unanimous. Our focus is going to be on antitrust and privacy. That’s where our laws are,” Jim Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general, said in an interview.


So basically they told Sessions to recall the US’s First Amendment, and moved on to topics not covered by that legal topic. I do like the idea of Sessions discovering his, er, session being hijacked and made to talk about serious issues.
link to this extract

AirPower referenced in iPhone XS packaging, iOS 12.1 code shows continuing development • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo:


Looking into iOS 12.1, we noticed that the component of iOS responsible for managing the charging interface that appears when using AirPower has been updated, which means that Apple is still actively working on the project.

Furthermore, a picture of the “getting started guide” that comes packaged with the iPhone XS clearly mentions AirPower. “Place iPhone with screen facing up on AirPower or a Qi-certified wireless charger,” it reads. The image was shared on Twitter by Gavin Stephens.

If Apple was planning on cancelling the project altogether, then it would definitely not be mentioning it in the packaging of the brand new devices.


I dunno, the lead time for printing the packaging for a few million phones is probably longer than a week or two. But the change in the 12.1 charging interface? That’s definitely a sign of life. I wonder if this has become a sort of death march for the team working on it now, where they are determined to make it work no matter what – a sort of Charge Over The River Kwai.
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Instagram’s CEO • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:


Technically speaking, Instagram was a company. In practice, though, Instagram was a product, and its business model was venture capital funding. To be sure, this wouldn’t be the case forever, but on April 9, 2012, the road from popular product to viable company was a long and arduous one. Instagram would not only need to continue growing its user base, it would also have to scale its infrastructure, figure out a business model (ok fine, advertising), build up tools to support that business model (first a sales team, then a self-serve model, plus tracking and targeting capabilities), all while fighting off larger and more established companies — particularly Facebook — that were waking up to the threat Instagram posed to their hold on user attention.

Or Systrom and Instagram could offload all of those responsibilities to Facebook and continue being “extraordinary product leaders”, and pocket $1bn to boot (and, to be fair to Systrom and team, that understates their gains; that $1bn included $700m in Facebook stock, which today is worth nearly $4bn). It is a defensible choice (for Instagram anyways; not for the regulators that approved the deal), but the implication is that, title notwithstanding, Systrom was never the CEO of Instagram; to be a CEO is to have a company that can stand on its own.


I spoke on the BBC’s World At One news programme about this on Tuesday, and in researching ahead of time noticed that Systrom had been giving interviews in August and even in September (here’s one with the WSJ magazine) where he didn’t give any hint of wanting to leave. Such as this quote in the WSJ piece:


“…The whole idea of joining Facebook was that we could scale way more quickly than we would independently. So if that is your goal, I think we’ve fulfilled that, and then some. If your goal, on the other hand, is not to have a billion dollars but two, or three, or four or whatever, well, good luck spending it. That’s not what makes you happy in life…I think what I’ve learned over the years is to spend time valuing the things that you have. And it’s not the trappings that people typically associate with success. It’s the things around family, around time alone, around intellectual curiosity.”


I can also confirm: when you’re the journalist who did the last interview with X before they did Y, and you don’t find out Y, you feel really crap. Seth Stevenson, you have my sympathies.
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Qualcomm accuses Apple of giving its intellectual property to Intel • WSJ

Tripp Mickle:


Under terms of their previous partnership, Qualcomm said it agreed to provide Apple with techniques, methods and software to evaluate the performance of its modems in iPhones. Those agreements gave a limited number of Apple engineers access to sensitive information, and Qualcomm said it has evidence showing Apple provided some of that information to Intel around 2016—a time when it says the iPhone maker was seeking leverage in modem-chip negotiations.

“Apple has engaged in a yearslong campaign of false promises, stealth, and subterfuge designed to steal Qualcomm’s confidential information,” Qualcomm said in its filing.

The allegations are an amendment to a breach of contract suit Qualcomm filed last November. In it, Qualcomm accused Apple of violating an agreement that allows the chip supplier to audit the iPhone maker’s use of its software. Qualcomm also said Apple engineers had shared some information about its technology with other Apple engineers working on competitors’ chips.

In August, Apple challenged Qualcomm’s suit in a filing, saying that after nine months of discovery the chip maker had failed to disclose evidence supporting those allegations. It asked the court to compel Qualcomm to disclose evidence.

Qualcomm’s filing Tuesday expands on the chip supplier’s prior claims by directly accusing Apple of using Qualcomm software to improve Intel’s chip performance. It also says Intel engineers complained to Apple they weren’t able to open Qualcomm files provided by the iPhone maker.


This is going to be the new Apple-Samsung, isn’t it.
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macOS 10.14 Mojave: The Ars Technica review • Ars Technica

Andrew Cunningham goes in depth – like, diving-equipment deep – into Apple’s new desktop OS, which now includes “hey iOS developers you will be able to easily port your app to the desktop!” aka Marzipan. Apple has written a few to show what they look like:


When you launch a Marzipan app, you’re actually launching a handful of processes. UIKitHostApp.xpc essentially serves as a launcher for the actual UIKit app and is responsible for actually displaying the app window—open the Activity Monitor and you’ll actually see two processes for every Marzipan app you launch, one for the app itself and one for the host app. The links against both macOS and iOS frameworks to bridge the gap between the two (for a more thorough look at everything that’s going on, Peter Steinberger’s instructions for hacking together third-party Marzipan apps and Adam Demasi’s examination of the under-the-hood technologies are both good reads).

Even though they’re iOS apps at heart, Marzipan adds support for expected macOS elements like scroll bars, Full Screen support, the menu bar, the Touch Bar, and right-clicking. The iOS apps support copy and paste and drag-and-drop with native Mac apps, and they can generate notifications and layer their windows just like typical AppKit apps, helping them blend in a bit better with the “real” Mac apps.

The end result is apps that exist somewhere in between actual Mac apps and iOS apps running on an iPad in landscape mode; compare the Mac versions and iOS versions side by side and you’ll see that they’re all near-identical, right down to the first-run splash screens. You do get a handful of controls up in the title bar, some menu items up in the menu bar (and, sometimes, in a right-click context menu), and always-visible search bars with Mac-style focus rings.


Marzipan is necessary to stop MacOS dying on its feet through lack of developer interest, because all the action – and most of the money – is on mobile. Sure, you get people running Photoshop and GPU-intensive programs on desktops, and they can command high prices (though, ehh, about the same as a phone now). But this is Apple being pragmatic about keeping developers interested in a platform that only survived because of the web, but is now at risk of becoming sterile because of mobile.
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Fog Creek is now Glitch! • Medium

Anil Dash is CEO of Fog Creek – that is, Glitch:


From inventing Trello to co-creating Stack Overflow to pioneering bug tracking with FogBugz and launching other successful and influential products like Manuscript and Kiln and Copilot and CityDesk and many other experiments. Fog Creek has been a bastion of innovation for nearly two decades.
And today, we’re turning the page on that chapter for something new.

When we started working on the project that would become Glitch, it was originally just part of our regular “Creek Week” process — the internal hackathons where members on our team come up with new ideas and try to inspire each other with cool projects. It became obvious pretty quickly that Glitch was something special.

Then earlier this year, when Glitch came out of beta, we saw an incredible groundswell. As a creative community, Glitch inspired people to create over a million apps in record time — including cutting-edge work in VR, machine learning, distributed apps, bots, and more. And Glitch has won the hearts of developers around the world who now feel that coding with other tools feels a lot more lonely and less productive. Just as importantly, Glitch has reminded an entire community that a healthy, independent, open web generates enormous value for everyone on the Internet, earning the attention and respect of many of the biggest players on the web.

One of the guiding principles for Glitch is that we should communicate with clarity, and that our purpose and goals should be self-evident in all we do. And that’s led us to recognize it’s time for us to become Glitch. It’s not just what we’re building, it’s who we are as a company. While the core values of Fog Creek still persist, we’ve also learned a lot and evolved a lot over the last two decades, and now our name and identity are evolving, too.


Dash took over a couple of years ago; it’s not coincidental that he’s the author of The Web We Lost, a 2012 lament for the way that big companies and monolithic software had taken over the web. Glitch has a feeling like something from that pre-2012 era; go there and look at the fabulous apps people have created for fun or work using it. (I rather like this space travel one that was playing when I visited. Put it on a really big screen!)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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5 thoughts on “Start Up No.917: Google searches for the future, Walmart goes blockchain-y, teens on Kavanaugh, AirPower lives?, Instagram’s real CEO, and more

  1. I need someone to explain to me why iOS on laptops and desktops would be a bad idea.

    I get that some people need workstations (lots of power/RAM/storage, multiple screens,…), and those should use MacOS/Windows/Linux. But most people don’t need workstations, and forcing those to learn a whole new OS, a lot of new apps, to become an admin for a complex and finicky old-school OS… just because they want a big screen, keyboard, and mouse doesn’t make sense. Even less now that the toaster-fridge fallacy is getting debunked by Apple itself and iOS apps are steered towards supporting WIMP.

    The only viewpoint from which forcing legacy ecosystems on people makes sense is Apple’s: sell more expensive computers, make sure the MacOS ecosystem doesn’t become marginal (that failed, hence Marzipan). But they’re overserving like crazy, and the only reason it hasn’t come crashing down on them is that Android has been equally shy about going after the legacy market, and Windows’ Mobile ecosystem never caught on.

    Right now, for non-technical users, ChromeOS is the best compromise, but though it’s simple and modern it’s Yet Another OS to learn to do the same things, and WIMP support in Android (ChromeOS now runs those) apps is spotty and random and undocumented (the PlayStore could easily have a “desktop” filter).

    We need to get rid of the Intel tax and of “IT’s latin” that complex legacy OSes are. Somebody do something !

    • Nobody is saying that iOS *apps* on laptops and desktops is a bad idea. But some people need a desktop operating system with all the foibles that brings – such people are doing high-end video work, computationally intensive work, etc.

      • Indeed, iApps are now deemed OK for WIMP.

        My question is really about iOS itself, the OS. If iApps’ UI is now OK for WIMP, one can probably assume that iOS’ UI is OK for WIMP too, iOS’ graphical shell is just another app in that sense. Ditto iOS’ utilities.

        That leaves iOS’ (and its ecosystem) underlying capabilities as the only issue. Agreed, high-end video, computationally intensive work, etc.. .need more hardware power and I/O and peripherals, and a more powerful and versatile OS. But what percentage of users is that ? I’d say less than 20%, possibly less than 10%, so we’re forcing 80-90% of users to speak Latin, when their native tongue would be fine. That’s crazy !

        You can feel Google MS and maybe Apple are aware of the problem. MS keeps trying to get an ARM, Metro-only ecosystem to be viable, but since they need to emulate x86 to claim any apps at all, they start with a huge handicap. Google I think is being unrealistic, trying to bypass Android’s issues with ChromeOS as if a single company could sustain 2 ecosystems, as if the market wanted one more ecosystem. ChromeOS isn’t doing anything that Android shouldn’t be doing: it is safe, updated, managed, and WIMP-aware. If Google limited supported hardware platforms (as it does with ChromeOS), Android can be that today. market-aware OEMs have been trying that since day one (remember those Toshiba and HP Android laptops ?), but without an ounce of support from Google (guidelines, Playstore “desktop”‘ category) it can’t be done. I’ve spent hours finding apps that run on my Android desktops, just because there’s no way to filter for them, and no info at all. Apparently Fuchsia is also tweaked to supporting several ecosystems (built-in support for VMs running Android, ChromeOS, Linux, probably Windows), instead of building one excellent, versatile one based on Android’s. Duh.

        And once all the significant apps support Wimp for Marzipan, Apple will have all it needs for an iOS laptop. Last I looked, the whole innards for that (basically, an iPhone’s, with a bit more I/O and RAM if Apple feels generous, which they don’t even on x86^^) costs less than the bare x86 CPU. We’re talking about a device that costs hundreds less at the same margin, with no learning curve (neither the OS nor its apps), room for a funky design (no fans !), better lock-in (even user skills become ultra-specialized: iOS-only, no more generic filesystem etc knowledge).

        Bundle that with cloud access to a legacy OS (2 hrs/month free, then subscribe), and users will be ecstatic, and give more money to OEMs for devices and cloud, with less money being funneled to Intel.

  2. Hmm, is it “dehumanizing language” to call people “trolls”? How about “garbage person” or “toxic”? The part about “based on their membership in an identifiable group” is going to be interesting when applied to the entirely discourse of political identities. What about the whole set of objections against “humanizing Nazis” (which seems directly on-point)?

    And that survey – ” (280 character max)” – Argh. It’s Twitter at its twittiest (“Here’s this enormously complex issue. Address it in 280 characters max”).

    • I think “it takes a village” is being shown to work both ways: it takes a whole village, but also, it takes *no more* than a village. Once reputation and social norms no longer apply, people turn bad and puppets (and dogs ^^) can pretend to be people.

      I’m not sure how that can be solved. I’ve read horrendous things on the Internet, from what I assume are horrendous people or puppets. But I’ve also heard horrendous things IRL from what are on balance good people.

      IRL, my rule for good people is 1- internal consistency (so that clerk who won’t marry gays because bible, but is OK with marrying divorcees and non-virgins doesn’t pass muster), and 2- reciprocity (it’s ok if you have weirdnesses as long as you accept the same weirdnesses in others; or if you demand specific behaviour from others you should exhibit same; so churches who are guilting everyone about everything while covering up financial and sexual crimes don’t pass muster). Those don’t work on the interwebs at the individual level because there are too many people, and I’m not sure an AI could make that work. I’m not even sure my system is the right one, it is very amoral.

      Also, the issue with shutting up trolls is know thy enemy. We don’t want to legitimize, but alienating doesn’t solve anything either. Plus we might be wrong, sometimes ;-p

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