Start Up No.968: Facebook’s emails released, can Uber make a profit?, Tom Cruise v motion smoothing, BT v Huawei, and more

Facebook has been getting a thumbs-down for a number of its past practices, revealed by emails. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Gardner on Flickr.

It’s December: charity time. Today’s suggested charities:
– UK readers: The National Deaf Children’s Society
– US readers: American Society for Deaf Children
– Australian readers: Deaf Children Australia
(In other countries try a search on “deaf children [your country]”.)

A selection of 12 links for you. Could be five, could be more. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Canadian authorities arrest CFO of Huawei Technologies at US request • WSJ

Kate O’Keeffe and Stu Woo:


Canadian authorities in Vancouver have arrested Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer at the request of the U.S. government for alleged violations of Iranian sanctions, the latest move by Washington to crack down on the Chinese cellular-technology giant.

A spokesman for Canada’s justice department said Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 and is sought for extradition by the US. A bail hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Friday, according to the spokesman. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, serves as the company’s CFO and deputy chairwoman.

Ms. Meng’s arrest comes amid a year-long U.S. government campaign against a company it views as a national-security threat. In the past year, Washington has taken a series of steps to restrict Huawei’s business on American soil and, more recently, launched an extraordinary international outreach campaign to persuade allied countries to enact similar curbs.


Holy cow. And speaking of “similar” curbs…
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BT to strip Huawei equipment from its core 4G network • Financial Times

Nic Fildes:


BT will strip Huawei equipment out of its core 4G network within two years to bring its mobile phone business in line with an internal policy to keep the Chinese company’s equipment at the periphery of telecoms infrastructure.

Governments around the world have become increasingly wary of Huawei’s presence in critical national telecoms infrastructure, especially as they prepare for auctions for 5G, a superfast service that will enable a new generation of digital products and services.

The US, Australia and New Zealand have moved to block the use of the Chinese company’s 5G equipment on security grounds, and the head of the UK’s secret service has warned that the UK must decide whether to follow suit.


First the US blocks Huawei from selling handsets on AT&T, now BT is pushing it out of the EE network (which it bought in 2016). This isn’t so much BT reversing anything, as implementing a policy it’s always had.
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Facebook used people’s data to favour certain partners and punish rivals, documents show • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac:


Facebook used the mountains of data it collected on users to favour certain partners and punish rivals, giving companies such as Airbnb and Netflix special access to its platform while cutting off others that it perceived as threats.

The tactics came to light on Wednesday from internal Facebook emails and other company documents released by a British parliamentary committee that is investigating online misinformation. The documents spotlight Facebook’s behavior from roughly 2012 to 2015, a period of explosive growth as the company navigated how to manage the information it was gathering on users and debated how best to profit from what it was building.

The documents show how Facebook executives treated data as the company’s most valuable resource and often wielded it to gain a strategic advantage. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, were intimately involved in decisions aimed at benefiting the social network above all else and keeping users as engaged as possible on the site, according to emails that were part of the document trove.

In one exchange from 2012 when Mr. Zuckerberg discussed charging developers for access to user data and persuading them to share their data with the social network, he wrote: “It’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform — even the read side — is to increase sharing back into Facebook.”


The fallout from these emails is going to go on and on. Here are a few more stories from them…
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Facebook knew Android call-scraping would be ‘high-risk’ • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


In March, many Android users were shocked to discover that Facebook had been collecting a record of their call and SMS history, as revealed by the company’s data download tool. Now, internal emails released by the UK Parliament show how the decision was made internally. According to the emails, developers knew the data was sensitive, but they still pushed to collect it as a way of expanding Facebook’s reach.

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.


And then Facebook denied up and down it had done this. This is what growth hacking does: it kills moral judgement.
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Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:


Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.


This, after it killed off apps like Vine and so on.
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Facebook’s internal tensions are spilling beyond the company’s walls • Buzzfeed News

Charlie Warzel:


Internally, the conflict seems to have divided Facebook into three camps: those loyal to Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg; those who see the current scandals as proof of a larger corporate meltdown; and a group who see the entire narrative — including the portrayal of the company’s hiring of communications consulting firm Definers Public Affairs — as examples of biased media attacks.

“It’s otherwise rational, sane people who’re in Mark’s orbit spouting full-blown anti-media rhetoric, saying that the press is ganging up on Facebook,” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s the bunker mentality. These people have been under siege for 600 days now. They’re getting tired, getting cranky — the only survival strategy is to quit or fully buy in.”

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson called this “a challenging time.”

“We are more determined than ever to continue making progress on the issues we’ve faced,” they said. “People at Facebook are focused on building products that help people connect and have a positive impact in the world.”

Two former employees said the spate of negative reports has cast a shadow over the company in recent weeks. Current and former employees describe a tense and, at times, hostile atmosphere inside the company, one in which both senior employees and even staunch loyalists are contemplating their futures.

People are “hoping for a Sundar or Dara moment,” one former senior Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News, referring to past leadership changes at Google and Uber in which founding employees stepped aside from top jobs. A second senior employee echoed the view, suggesting that some inside the ranks are looking for a shakeup to come from the outside.


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Searching the creative internet • Crawshaw

David Crawshaw:


What I miss about my “90s internet” wasn’t it specifically, with its slow data links, tiny JPEGs, buffering RealPlayer, or the tag. It did not the tiniest fraction of the wonderful content the internet has today.

What I miss is that I could “go on the internet” and be in a creative corner of the human experience. Today if you “go on the internet”, that means you pulled your phone out of your pocket, dismissed some notification spam and start reading click-bait shared by people you have met on social media.

Today you have to choke your way through the money-making miasma to find the joy.

I wish the internet of creative people and their works had a front page and a search engine. Something that made finding the blog about the search for planet 9 easy to find, and the New Yorker article on it hard to find. A place where wikipedia articles came first, where all the interesting technical stuff you might find in whitequark’s feed was what you got instead of sidebar ads, not buried away behind the popular and the profitable. Where a D&D podcast made by three brothers and their dad in West Virginia was as easy to find as the podcasts produced by NPR’s $200m/year machine.

There is enough interest the creative web to pay for its tools. Wikipedia raises $80m a year from donations! (What they spend it on does not seem at all effective to me, but it’s not my money. Your software does cost more when you have to spend time making sure it doesn’t hurt your fundraising.)


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Will Uber survive the next decade? • NY Mag

Yves Smith:


Uber has never presented a case as to why it will ever be profitable, let alone earn an adequate return on capital. Investors are pinning their hopes on a successful IPO, which means finding greater fools in sufficient numbers.

Uber is a taxi company with an app attached. It bears almost no resemblance to internet superstars it claims to emulate. The app is not technically daunting and and does not create a competitive barrier, as witnessed by the fact that many other players have copied it. Apps have been introduced for airlines, pizza delivery, and hundreds of other consumer services but have never generated market-share gains, much less tens of billions in corporate value. They do not create network effects. Unlike Facebook or eBay, having more Uber users does not improve the service.

Nor, after a certain point, does adding more drivers. Uber does regularly claim that its app creates economies of scale for drivers — but for that to be the case, adding more drivers would have to benefit drivers. It doesn’t. More drivers means more competition for available jobs, which means less utilization per driver. There is a trade-off between capacity and utilization in a transportation system, which you do not see in digital networks. The classic use of “network effects” referred to the design of an integrated transport network — an airline hub and spoke network which create utility for passengers (or packages) by having more opportunities to connect to more destinations versus linear point-to-point routes. Uber is obviously not a fixed network with integrated routes — taxi passengers do not connect between different vehicles.


The context: Uber just announced a $1bn loss for the quarter. Never mind, they’ll make it up in volume.
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California fires released emissions equal to a year of power use • Quartz

Zoe Schlanger:


California’s 2018 fire season, including the largest fire in state history, released nearly as much climate-warming and air-polluting emissions as a year’s worth of electricity use there.

The wildfires released 68 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, according to the US Geological Survey, or 15% of the state’s total emissions. For comparison, all electricity use in California in 2016 produced roughly 76 million tons in emissions.

Those figures were the highlights of a Nov. 30 statement from the Interior Department that blamed the wildfires largely on forest-management practices.


This is a bad take (and to be clear, the source of the badness is the DOI): the “emissions” from burning short-lived plants are completely unlike those from burning gas (a fossil fuel), which is half of California’s generation) or coal (a fossil fuel). Short-lived plants weren’t buried underground for millions of years; they’re carbon-neutral, viewed over the lifespan of most people.

It’s clueless of the DOI to put out this statement, but clueless too of publications to repeat it without pointing out how wrong it is.
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The global online dating landscape in 2018 • GlobalWebIndex


At 65% of the user base, men outnumber women almost 2 to 1 as the biggest online daters.

Most growth in the online dating market seems to be coming from location-based dating apps, like Happn and Badoo, which have crept up slowly from 7% monthly usage to 13% in the past three years. On the other hand, paid-for online dating services have flatlined, as illustrated in our latest infographic taking an in-depth look at the global online dating landscape.

Acceptance and adoption aren’t universal though. As expected, younger people make up the majority of online daters: 75% of online daters are under the age of 30, and 90% are under 40. Among singles who use the internet, online dating peaks at the age of 25.  This audience is truly global too, especially throughout emerging markets.

Populations in these markets are generally younger, but the greater popularity holds up even after taking age differences into account. This means dating apps face larger implicit competition from other sources of socializing – dating-led or not. But it also reveals the potential to integrate with social media platforms, which we’ve already seen with Facebook announcing it was trialling a dating app.


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Motion impossible: Tom Cruise declares war on TV frame interpolation • The Guardian

Stuart Heritage:


This has been a landmark year for Tom Cruise. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout he made the action film of his career. He’s currently filming a sequel to one of his most beloved films, Top Gun. And it’s been rumoured that he has plans to make history by literally filming Mission: Impossible 7 in space.

How on earth could Tom Cruise manage to top all this? Simple. He’s made a video urging you to switch off motion smoothing on your TV. For this, he deserves everything. Welcome back, Tom. We’ve missed you.

At 9:46 last night, Tom tweeted an 87-second video in which he and his go-to director Christopher McQuarrie explained the concept of video interpolation and why it is the death of all good things. Video interpolation, they explained, is a digital video effect used to improve the quality of high-definition sport. “The unfortunate effect is that it makes most movies look like they were shot on high-speed video rather than film,” said Cruise. “This is sometimes referred to as the ‘soap-opera effect’.” They explained that most HD televisions come with video interpolation switched on by default, they explained how to switch it off, and then they both nodded with total sincerity…

…you’d better believe that, if Tom Cruise wants you to turn off motion smoothing on your television, you will turn off motion smoothing on your television. This video is just the start. The next stage will be visiting your house personally and asking you nicely. After that he’ll visit your house and verbally threaten you. If you still haven’t switched off motion smoothing by then, Tom Cruise will force himself through your TV screen using willpower alone, like the girl from The Ring, grab the remote out of your dumb cow hands and turn off motion smoothing himself. He will do whatever it takes.


Come on, I mean, just for the headline alone.
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Bizarre ‘dark fluid’ with negative mass could dominate the universe – what my research suggests • The Conversation

Jamie Farnes is a research associate and astrophysicist at the University of Oxford’s e-Research Centre:


Negative masses are a hypothetical form of matter that would have a type of negative gravity – repelling all other material around them. Unlike familiar positive mass matter, if a negative mass was pushed, it would accelerate towards you rather than away from you.

Negative masses are not a new idea in cosmology. Just like normal matter, negative mass particles would become more spread out as the universe expands – meaning that their repulsive force would become weaker over time. However, studies have shown that the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe is relentlessly constant. This inconsistency has previously led researchers to abandon this idea. If a dark fluid exists, it should not thin out over time.

In the new study, I propose a modification to Einstein’s theory of general relativity to allow negative masses to not only exist, but to be created continuously. “Matter creation” was already included in an early alternative theory to the Big Bang, known as the Steady State model. The main assumption was that (positive mass) matter was continuously created to replenish material as the universe expands. We now know from observational evidence that this is incorrect. However, that doesn’t mean that negative mass matter can’t be continuously created. I show that this assumed dark fluid is never spread too thinly. Instead it behaves exactly like dark energy.


Well, at least it gives you something to talk about at parties.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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1 thought on “Start Up No.968: Facebook’s emails released, can Uber make a profit?, Tom Cruise v motion smoothing, BT v Huawei, and more

  1. re Uber profits. I dislike the “moats ! must have moats !” theory of business because
    – moats are just a dramatization of walls
    – moats box in a business as much as they keep competitors out
    – moats and walls don’t have a very good track record: Troy, Maginot, Westeros…
    – Moats-based societies tend to focus their paranoia inwards instead of outwards, and thus not surive
    – people like Trumpsters want walls and moats. Do we want to be Trumpsters, even just in the business sense ?

    But, in the case of Uber, I’m really wondering what kind of lock-in they have at all. Both customers and drivers are one app away from transparently switching to another platform, and some are already doing just that. I don’t see anything preventing a quasi-instant MySpace-like demise, actually it could be even faster since there’s no contributed content and social network to slow down an exodus.

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