Start Up No.971: more location tracking, Google+ shutting down early, scooters slow down, the crypto cruise crash, and more

Peppa Pig: big, in tattoo form, in China. CC-licensed photo by Cidade do Saber Camaçari on Flickr.

Charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Samaritans, the charity which offers the gift of listening. The organisation receives the most calls during December.

A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t ask for a vote on it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-Devries, Natasha Singer, Michael Keller and Aaron Krolik:


More than 1,000 popular apps contain location-sharing code from such companies, according to 2018 data from MightySignal, a mobile analysis firm. Google’s Android system was found to have about 1,200 apps with such code, compared with about 200 on Apple’s iOS.

The most prolific company was Reveal Mobile, based in North Carolina, which had location-gathering code in more than 500 apps, including many that provide local news. A Reveal spokesman said that the popularity of its code showed that it helped app developers make ad money and consumers get free services.

To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”

WeatherBug, owned by GroundTruth, asks users’ permission to collect their location and tells them the information will be used to personalize ads. GroundTruth said that it typically sent the data to ad companies it worked with, but that if they didn’t want the information they could ask to stop receiving it.


Is it just me, or does it feel like this story comes around every couple of years? (That’s 2011 in case you don’t want to follow the link, and the first time this was big.)
link to this extract

Google+ to shut down in April after new security flaw found • Financial Times

Richard Waters:


Google said it has discovered a new vulnerability in its Google+ social network that could have revealed private data on 52.5m users, just a month after it disclosed an earlier security flaw and announced plans to close down the service.

The new problem was disclosed on Monday, prompting the internet giant to say it will bring forward the date for ending the consumer Google+ service by four months, to April next year.

The company said it had identified the new flaw less than a week after it was introduced, and that it been fixed. There was “no evidence” that any third-party app developers had misused user data as a result of the flaw, it said.

The latest disclosure marks an embarrassing stumble by Google as it tried to plug previous gaps in its privacy protections. It could also hamper its attempts to give Google+ a second life as a collaboration and communication service for workers, after closing down the free consumer version.


link to this extract

Investor frenzy for scooter startups cools • WSJ

Eliot Brown, Greg Bensinger and Katie Roof:


Scooters barely existed as a business a year ago. But Bird, Lime and others rapidly deployed thousands of them last spring in cities around the U.S. The rides generally rent for $1 to start and 15 cents a minute; customers unlock them with a smartphone and leave the scooters on the sidewalk when they are done.

Investors rushed in after seeing rapid adoption in several California cities. Some companies reported revenue of more than $20 a day for each scooter, suggesting significant profit potential given they cost about $500 apiece.

The economics, though, have proved tougher than expected, people familiar with the companies said.

One issue is scooters not designed for heavy use are breaking down quickly. In some markets, scooters last about two months, investors said, often less time than it takes to recoup the purchase cost. Another is vandalism, glorified on social media through video clips of people knocking over rows of scooters or throwing them off parking garages.

Scoot Networks, a small San Francisco operator of electric Vespa-like scooters, this summer won the right to launch a fleet of as many as 650 scooters there. It hoped to capitalize on the launch of Bird and Lime in the city months earlier. But within two weeks of its October launch, more than 200 scooters had been stolen or vandalized beyond repair, Chief Executive Michael Keating said. That was far more than he had estimated when he got into the business.

“Part of our assumption was that if the theft rate is really, really high and the vandalism rate is really, really high, there is no way these other companies would be in the business,” he said. “That ended up being an underestimate.”


link to this extract

I replaced all the computer monitors in my office with ultrawide ones • NY Mag

Mark Cho:


I don’t know why more people don’t use ultrawide computer monitors. Maybe they just don’t know about them. Most computer monitors and screens have a width-height ratio of 16:9 (or in the case of MacBooks, 16:10), but ultrawides are 21:9 and sometimes even wider, giving you significantly more real estate on the sides. I’ve been using them almost exclusively since 2015 and am impressed every day by their utility.

Say you had to write a report and needed to reference a website at the same time. Have you ever tried doing that on a regular monitor? How much time do you waste toggling between two windows — or cutting off a third of each to fit both within the screen? An ultrawide lets you use half the screen for a web browser and and the other half for a document with enough space for both.


It happens to have recommendations for five ultrawide monitors, but the argument in favour is hard to discount.
link to this extract

Four days trapped at sea with crypto’s nouveau riche • Beakermag

Laurie Penny knows nothing about cryptocurrency, which is why she’s the perfect person to go on an awful cruise in the Mediterranean:


My editor tells me Ver is a notorious hulking ego-monster, but my first impression of him is that he is actually very shy. I don’t see him on the dance floors or partying in the poker room. Correlation does not equal causation, and for all I know the guy has been hip-deep in Ukrainian models somewhere offstage the whole time, but I suspect not. I suspect he has been doing what he normally does: having arguments on the internet.

Later on, he takes part in a heated, well-attended showdown debate with star bitcoin maximalist Jimmy Song on the relative merits of bitcoin vs. Bitcoin Cash—the Hatfield-McCoy feud of this self-contained culture. It’s billed as a genteel Lincoln-Douglas style exchange of views. It takes about 10 minutes to become a raging, cringeworthy shitshow. On stage, Ver gets angry and then flustered and petty, demanding to know whether his opponent has ever read Adam Smith cover to cover. It is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live-action Twitter flamewar.

Ver loses the debate by any measure, partly because his brain is permanently set to spreadsheet mode, but mostly because he seems to have forgotten the iron law of performative debate, which also happens to apply to dating: The person who cares most always loses.

Eventually, Song storms off the stage, refusing to participate in what he calls “TMZ-style gotcha politics.” He is replaced by shirtless bitcoin analyst Tone Vays, who waves a water bottle and gamely tries to save the day. All of this is distressing. I get to ask a question.

“I came here to find out about the politics and vision of cryptocurrency,” I say, testing the mic, “so I’m wondering if you can both tell me why I should believe in it having seen what I’ve just seen.”

The question does not compute. Instead both Ver and Vays try to persuade me that their coin is the best to invest in.


link to this extract

The ineptitude of Donald Trump’s co-conspirators • The New Yorker

Adam Davidson:


Friday night, the office of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and a separate group of federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, laid out evidence that, taken together, leaves little doubt that Donald Trump sought to use his candidacy to enrich himself by approving a plan to curry political favor from Vladimir Putin in exchange for a lucrative real-estate opportunity.

It may be only part of the full story, but what we now know is a powerful tale that combines elements that are familiar from other Trumpworld scandals. It is at once shockingly corrupt, blatantly unethical, probably illegal, and yet, at the same time, shabby, small, and ineptly executed.

Combined with another memo released on Friday—a more sparsely informative sentencing memo for Paul Manafort—we are seeing the inner workings of a coördinated conspiracy conducted by people who are very, very bad at conspiracy.

Consider Manafort. In October, 2017, Manafort was indicted, and it was clear to him and anybody who read the news that his communications would be carefully monitored by the F.B.I. Yet this week’s sentencing memo reveals that Manafort was sending text messages and e-mails through May, 2018, that prove he was in contact with “a senior Administration official” and had “additional contacts with Administration officials.” It is surprising that Manafort decided to use text and e-mail for these contacts, since both are easily traced, and it is even more surprising that anybody in the Administration would communicate with Manafort so openly at a time when he was, quite famously, the most toxic political operative in the world. Recklessly, Manafort chose to lie about these contacts to investigators who had already demonstrated their ability to search his e-mail and text history.


And that’s before he gets on to Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. This may all be things you’ve read before, or heard elsewhere, but seeing it crystallised like this reminds you how amazingly corrupt these people were, and are.
link to this extract

SoftBank slams the door on Chinese 5G investment • Nikkei Asian Review

Minoru Satake:


SoftBank Group has decided not to use Chinese equipment in its 5G business. The decision comes after the Japanese government compiled a procurement guideline for telecommunications equipment that effectively bans purchases from Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies.

The Japanese technology conglomerate is the only major telecom in the country that uses Huawei and ZTE equipment in its 4G systems, and will determine whether it has to find other makers.

SoftBank’s decision comes amid rising security concerns about Chinese-made equipment. Washington has already banned Huawei and ZTE from the US 5G market, and has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies for their dealings with Iran.

Australia and New Zealand have already banned Chinese makers from building their 5G networks.

Although not citing specific companies, Japan has shut the door on Chinese telecom purchases by central government ministries and its Self-Defense Forces.

Japanese telecoms plan to start testing 5G services next year with the goal of full-scale rollout of commercialized 5G services in 2020.

SoftBank had been partnering with Huawei in 5G trials.


OK, so Japan has been carefully cosying up to the US, and wants to keep China at arm’s length; this fits into that. Possibly SoftBank received some visits from Japanese government sources.
link to this extract

UK government spent most on Facebook political advertising • POLITICO

Annabelle Dickson:


The UK government was the highest spending political advertiser last week shelling out almost £97,000 on Facebook advertisements seeking support for its deal taking Britain out of the European Union.

The figures published by Facebook on Monday in a new weekly political advertising report also reveal that the ruling Conservative Party spent £40,000 between December 2 and December 8, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May spent £1,659 in the same period.

The People’s Vote — an anti-Brexit campaign group pushing for a fresh referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union — spent more than £47,000.

Pro-Brexit campaign group Britain’s Future, which is opposed to May’s deal, spent almost £21,800.


All the government’s spending was wasted money, because the deal wasn’t to be voted on by ordinary voters; it was for the 600-odd MPs in Parliament. Unless there’s some suggestion that only MPs were targeted. (I guess you could, using Facebook’s tools, but I wouldn’t have thought they’d be that expensive – or that the ads would be worthwhile.)

Arguably, this is misspending.
link to this extract

52 things I learned in 2018: Fluxx Studio Notes • Medium

The annually excellent (and surely excellent in between times too) Tom Whitwell; I’ll just pick a few at random:


4. 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]
5. Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]
6. In Uganda, half the population is under the age of 15. [Tom Jackson]
7. Peppa Pig tattoos are big in China. [Kenrick Davis]
8. AgriProtein is a British company that operates two fly farms in South Africa. Each farm contains 8.4 billion flies, which consume 276 tonnes of food waste and lay 340 million eggs each day. Those eggs (maggots) are dehydrated, flattened and used as animal feed. The company is worth $200m, and they’re planning to open 100 more factories around the world by 2024. [Andrea Lo]
9. Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]


And you can probably figure out how many more there are where those came from.
link to this extract

Blippar on the brink • Sunday Times

Oliver Shah says that the London-based augmented reality company is out of funding:


Blippar’s failure would put 75 jobs at risk just before Christmas. It would be the latest blow for the British tech industry, following the high-profile unravellings of Powa Technologies and Ve Interactive.

Blippar once claimed to have turned down a $1.5bn takeover bid, putting it in the elite breed of start-ups valued at more than $1bn.

The development comes despite an ongoing rush of money into European tech start-ups, which attracted a total of $23bn (£18bn) this year, according to the investment firm Atomico. In 2013, the figure was $5bn.

Blippar was devised in a pub eight years ago, when Ambarish Mitra joked to co-founder Omar Tayeb that it would be “cool” if the picture on a banknote could come to life. They developed an app allowing users to scan physical objects such as supermarket promotions to produce responses on their smartphones.

Mitra, dubbed the real-life Slumdog Millionaire for his colourful — and sometimes exaggerated — backstory, has raised almost $150m from investors. Candy owns 49%, the hedge fund Lansdowne Partners holds 14%, Khazanah 12% and US tech giant Qualcomm 12%.

Blippar has burnt through money and been forced to close offices around the world to cut costs. The latest accounts, for the 12 months to March last year, showed pre-tax losses of £34.5m on sales of £5.7m.


AR: still a zero-billion-dollar industry.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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5 thoughts on “Start Up No.971: more location tracking, Google+ shutting down early, scooters slow down, the crypto cruise crash, and more

  1. re ultrawides: my brain and eyes have more trouble with bigger monitors, so I go with 2-3 regular-size monitors instead, mostly 2 on the PC + 1 or 2 tablets nowadays, though I have a 3rd monitor for a few occasions. Also, windows management is easier with several monitors than with a single large one (depends on what apps I’m sure, I’m not doing graphics nor video stuff)

  2. re Trump’s ineptitude. I get it, he’s phenomenally corrupt and incompetent, as are most in his orbit.

    What does it say about the ones who lost to him though ? The saying is what makes being 1st really admirable is who the 2nd his. What do we say about the 2nd and lower when the 1st is Trump ?

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