Start Up No.977: Babylon GP app questioned, Twitter goes chronological (again), Instagram’s fake influencers, election data wars, and more

American ketchup: sweetened with corn syrup, which isn’t as nice as real sugar. But why? CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Cancer Research, which aims to help fund research to end cancer.
Readers in the US: the American Cancer Society takes donations Please give as generously as you feel you can.

A selection of 9 links for you. Done all the cards? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This health startup won big government deals—but inside, doctors flagged problems • Forbes

Parmy Olson:


the spectacle of brash tech entrepreneurs making outsized claims for their products is hardly a new phenomenon. Neither would matter very much except for the fact that Babylon has two contracts with Britain’s National Health Service, which runs one of the world’s largest nationalized healthcare systems. Babylon’s GP At Hand app offers 35,000 NHS patients video calls and access to its triage chatbot for advice on whether to see a doctor. The NHS is also encouraging 2 million citizens in North London to use NHS 111: Online, an app from Babylon that primarily features a triage chatbot as an alternative to the NHS advice line. Neither uses Babylon’s diagnostic advice chatbot, but the company has talked about bringing this feature to its NHS apps, staff say.

The NHS’s motivations are clear and noble: It wants to save money and produce better health outcomes for patients. Britain will spend nearly $200bn on its national healthcare system in 2020, a sum equivalent to about 7% of GDP. That slice of GDP has doubled since 1950, and the country desperately needs to find a way to rein in costs while still providing a benefit that is seen as central to the UK’s social contract. 

Reducing emergency room visits is a logical step, since they cost the NHS $200 on average per visit, a total of $4bn in the past year, while waiting times are increasing and at least 1.5 million Brits go to the emergency room when they don’t need to. Babylon’s cost-saving chatbot could be a huge help. If it worked better. 

There are some doubts, for instance, about whether the software can fulfill one of its main aims: keeping the “worried well” from heading to the hospital. Early and current iterations of the chatbot advise users to go for a costly emergency room visit in around 30% of cases, according to a Babylon staffer, compared with roughly 20% of people who dial the national health advice line, 111. It’s not clear how many patients take that advice, and Babylon says it doesn’t track that data. 


Another amazing exposé from Olson. One of Babylon’s biggest boosters is the current health secretary Matt Hancock. Perhaps he’ll read this and think again.
link to this extract

Twitter rolls out ‘sparkle button’ to let users hide the algorithmic feed • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:


Twitter is giving users the ability to easily switch between seeing the latest tweets first and seeing the company’s algorithmically chosen “Top Tweets” when they open the app.

The company began testing this feature a few weeks ago, but they are officially rolling it out globally to all iOS users today, with Android and desktop users likely getting access to the feature sometime in January, according to the company.

This is part-resolution and part extended cop-out for Twitter, which has spent the better part of the past couple of years figuring out how to satisfy a need for growth with vocal, loyal users who want the act of opening the app to continue to mean getting the immediate pulse of the internet.


A rare win for the good old reverse chronological there, but only if people discover the magic button.
link to this extract

Influencers are faking brand deals • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:


“People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”

But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer”—that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money—is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: fake it until you make it.

Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”


Pretending to have a sort-of job is the new having a sort-of job.
link to this extract

The future of television? Binge-watching is only the beginning • WSJ

Stinson Carter:


Television, as most people have known it for most of their lives, is no more. “At some point you’ll get to a place where thinking about television from a linear standpoint will be like dial-up internet,” says Hulu CEO Randy Freer. “It’s a great time for content; not a great time for cable networks. I think what will happen is: Cable networks that have been able to create brands for themselves will have an opportunity to expand and figure out how they present to consumers.”

Cable networks with a clear identity have a critical advantage in a subscription-based world, while networks with less-defined name recognition—those that have been just another channel in the cable lineup—will likely find it hard to entice the growing ranks of broadband-only consumers to buy an à la carte monthly subscription service.

HBO is moving into the new era. “In the domestic market of the United States, where there is a surfeit of content more than ever, I personally think that brands matter more than ever,” says HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler. In 2017, HBO had its biggest subscriber growth yet, proving that premium cable brands can still thrive alongside the likes of Netflix. “This isn’t binary; Netflix can grow and HBO can grow,” Plepler says. “We’ve always wanted to make HBO available however, wherever and whenever a consumer wants it.”


American consumers are waking up to how badly off they are; the cable companies are basically extortion rackets which use live sports as the way to tie them in to colossal monthly charges. Unravel those, and it all starts falling apart. The lack of adverts on Netflix (less so Hulu) has proven very attractive both to viewers and to writers.

But notice: YouTube isn’t in there as a “channel” that people watch on a TV, as far as I can tell.
link to this extract

Iranian phishers bypass 2FA protections offered by Yahoo Mail and Gmail • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:


A recent phishing campaign targeting US government officials, activists, and journalists is notable for using a technique that allowed the attackers to bypass two-factor authentication (2FA) protections offered by services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail, researchers said Thursday. The event underscores the risks of 2FA that relies on one-tap logins or one-time passwords, particularly if the latter are sent in SMS messages to phones.

Attackers working on behalf of the Iranian government collected detailed information on targets and used that knowledge to write spear-phishing emails that were tailored to the targets’ level of operational security, researchers with security firm Certfa Lab said in a blog post. The emails contained a hidden image that alerted the attackers in real time when targets viewed the messages. When targets entered passwords into a fake Gmail or Yahoo security page, the attackers would almost simultaneously enter the credentials into a real login page. In the event targets’ accounts were protected by 2FA, the attackers redirected targets to a new page that requested a one-time password [OTP].

“In other words, they check victims’ usernames and passwords in realtime on their own servers, and even if two-factor authentication such as text message, authenticator app or one-tap login are enabled they can trick targets and steal that information too,” Certfa Lab researchers wrote.

In an email, a Certfa representative said company researchers confirmed that the technique successfully breached accounts protected by SMS-based 2fa.


It isn’t that hard, when you think about it: if you can get someone to believe they’re at a login page (feasible given how easy it is to get a security certificate for a page), you can use the time – about 30 seconds – to use the OTP. What isn’t widely known is that OTPs last longer than the 30 seconds they claim. (Yes, I wrote about this in Cyber Wars.)

link to this extract

Why ketchup in Mexico tastes so good • American Institute for Economic Research

Jeffrey Tucker:


The US has a mighty import quota for sugar that limits imports to keep the price as high as possible for American consumers. “Imports of sugar into the United States are governed by tariff-rate quotas (TRQs), which allow a certain quantity of sugar to enter the country under a low tariff,” says the USDA. “The USDA establishes the annual quota volumes for each federal fiscal year (beginning October 1) and the U.S. Trade Representative allocates the TRQs among countries.”

As a result, US consumers and producers pay approximately three times the world price of sugar. This discourages its use relative to substitutes. Yes, this is happening to you and me every day, and these price signals have dramatically affected our diets. This is because the decision of producers to use corn syrup instead of sugar in a highly price competitive market makes economic sense.

Try to go without corn syrup for a few days. It’s not easy. It’s true, for example, that Heinz offers a product called Simply Heinz that uses pure sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup. But that product costs nearly $1 more than the standard bottle of ketchup. You are at the grocery aisle. You are price conscious. One bottle costs a dollar less than the other, and the taste difference between the two seems barely discernible.

Only high-end, fussy, conscious consumers go for the high-end product. You can see why people desire to pay less. Prices matter. Central planning has caused this, and massive numbers of American health problems along with it.


From February, but nothing’s changed. The sugar tariff was first imposed in 1816 to protect plantations (with slaves) in Louisiana. Still going strong 200 years later.
link to this extract

Who will be in control of your home this Christmas? • Kantar Worldpanel


Duncan Stark, vice president at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, comments: “Of the fifth of the homes with a smart speaker, 60% have just one device – predominantly located in the living room – so manufacturers have a big chance to push this hardware for new and existing buyers this Christmas.

“However, almost three quarters of consumers still don’t see the point in smart speakers – a significant number for a technology that’s been fairly mainstream since around 2016.  Manufacturers need to do more to demonstrate the positive impact that owning such a device can have – like the fact that more than a quarter of owners say it’s led them to listen to more music than they used to or that 10% use their phones less. Our research shows that more than half of current owners are likely to strongly recommend their smart speaker.”

The latest Kantar Worldpanel ComTech figures on voice assisted device ownership in the US show:

• 27% of owners listen to more music than they used to
• 15% have switched to a different music streaming service since buying a voice assistant
• 13% have started using a music streaming service for the first time
• 12% have switched from a free to a paid music streaming service
• 11% ensure new electronic devices they buy are compatible with their virtual assistant

Meanwhile, worries about hacking and data security affect almost a fifth of shoppers – something which manufacturers will need to make sure they are addressing.


That stat about 15% having changed to a different service is notable. Only 3% of homes total, but quite a slice: there are about 126m households in the US, so that’s 3.8m households. Probably almost all of those are wins for Amazon.
link to this extract

Why you should care about the Nate Silver vs. Nassim Taleb Twitter war • Towards Data Science

Isaac Faber:


If a prediction does not obey some fundamental characteristics, it should not be marketed as a probability. More importantly, a prediction should be judged from the time it is given to the public and not just the moment before the event. A forecaster should be held responsible for both aleatory and epistemic uncertainty.

When viewed this way, it is clear that FiveThirtyEight reports too much noise leading up to an event and not enough signal. This is great for driving users to read long series of related articles on the same topic but not so rigorous to bet your fortune on. Taleb’s and Silver’s take on how FiveThirtyEight should be judged can be visualized like this.

Taleb vs. Silver’s different take on how FiveThirtyEight should be judged in 2016

Because there is so much uncertainty around non-linear events, like an election, it could reasonably be considered frivolous to report early stage forecasts. The only conceivable reason to do so is to capture (and monetize?) the interest of a public which is hungry to know the future. I will not go into the technical arguments; Taleb has written and published a paper on the key issues with a solution.


“Too much noise, not enough signal” – but elections mostly are noise, and figuring out what is signal can only be done afterwards. (And everyone can argue it differently.)
link to this extract

Non-disclosure Apple • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Goldberg looks back to the 2000s, when everyone used to disclose their handset sales figures:


The industry research shops (e.g. Gartner) sold [product sales forecast] models for other product segments, but those were fragile and prone to breaking under heavy scrutiny. For handsets, everyone involved could make sound judgments, while the other segments were prone to problems stemming from a general lack of data.

All of this started to break down after the launch of the iPhone. Many companies got themselves backed into reporting corners as their data increasingly painted the wrong picture. Apple did not pursue market share, as we first argued back in May of 2009 (email us if you would like a copy of the original note). Apple was pursuing profit share. It took several years for the other handset companies to realize that their record shipment data was useless for explaining why their profits were plummeting. Then with the early waves of Android, the former leaders’ market shares also started plummeting. And so one by one all the others stopped reporting unit figures.

We remember one example of why this data was important for the companies that were slowly stopping to report it. Around 2009, the India analyst for one of the third party research shops reported market share data that showed Nokia had lost a huge chink of market share there. Nokia actually issued an official statement denying this. The analysis company’s other analysts all chimed in as well, siding with Nokia and not their colleague. We believe the analysts was actually fired, and certainly faced reprimand when his own employers sided with one of their largest customers over their own analyst. But it turns out he was right, he had the correct data, Nokia had very rapidly gone from market share leader to number two player, and they were losing share to a swarm of China-based handset companies. By denying the reality, Nokia turned a blind eye to its growing problem, and ultimately the company was pushed from the handset market entirely.


So why is Apple now going to stop reporting those numbers? Optics, he thinks:


Investors, in particular, tend to analyze data to death. They have to make big decisions (with other people’s money) based on whatever data they can gather. Then they build models to make predictions which can have a huge impact on their valuation decisions. In Apple’s case, this means they will take any declines in unit shipments and extrapolate those numbers out to the heat death of the universe.


link to this extract

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7 thoughts on “Start Up No.977: Babylon GP app questioned, Twitter goes chronological (again), Instagram’s fake influencers, election data wars, and more

  1. re. “extrapolating to the heat death of the universe”. Because….. financiers care about the very long term ? Not !
    Apple will stop reporting numbers because those numbers are bad, and Apple is mostly an image company, so they need to tightly control the message.
    Also, we’ll hear a lot about how wonderfully Services are doing, but nothing about how services are 100% dependent on iDevice sales. Nobody ever bought an Apple service independently of an Apple device; people buy Apple services mostly because they don’t have a choice (warranty, repairs, appstore, Pay, drive, even Music and Movies on some devices), which makes device numbers much needed as the core predictor. Even misc. hardware sales are a consequence of iPhone sales (iBuds, iCables…).
    Short-term, services and misc. growth can make up for flagging device sales (everyone has to buy a fast charger and iBuds now, no more getting what’s needed in the iPhone box, not a headset, not even a headset adapter). Medium term, it can’t, because it’s a multiple of device numbers and that multiple can only go so high, so fewer devices can’t be made up indefinitely by higher services and misc. sales. Even if Apple ensures its devices fry regularly (see cable issue in the previous comments) and repair prices are 5-10x industry standards (which they are, for an iPhone screen or MacBook keyboard).
    Also, don’t forget there’s competition. For all the branding magic, people are bound to realize they’re being taken for a ride, eventually, both by flagships in general (ever fewer users actually need those) and by Apple especially.

  2. re. Fake ads from influencers: that’s the oldest trick in the book. Back I when I was working for IT distributors/consultants, we had a laundry list of “references”, some of them we’d basically sold one printer cable to. It didn’t work on actual Large Accounts, but it did work on the juicier Key/Middle segment.

  3. BTW, I got a conspicuously unanswered question: if USB-C is good enough (or magic enough, or delightful enough) for the Pad Pro, why is it not so for iPhone ?
    Are there any reasons besides milking the user via lock-in and the MFI tax, or is this precisely why we don’t talk about the issue ?

    • The lightning connector is a far better design – more robust and quite a bit smaller – something that would be more impactful in a phone than a bigger tablet. HTH

      • I’ve been looking everywhere for data on the robustness, and couldn’t find anything. I’m really interested in data on that.

        While searching for that, I came across the whole gamut of Lightning vs USB-C comparisons, most being entirely one-sided (and none making any argument either way about sturdiness).

        Trying to synthesize, it goes:
        for Lightning
        – smaller (seems to me just a wee bit)
        – earlier (2yrs before USB-C was official)
        – proprietary so can evolve w/o committee (it hasn’t, though)
        For USB-C
        – can support USB 1, 2, 3.1g1 or 3.1g2, or even TB3, so same cable for low-end and high-end, old and new and future… we’ll assume 3.1g2 for the rest
        – 9x charging power
        – 20x the data speed
        – same connector on both sides, so you can just have USB-C everywhere, laptops, phones, headphones…
        – supports digital audio, analog audio, video, sata,…
        – and backwards compatible with previous USB levels + devices via a dumb cable
        – supports proprietary extensions so that Lightning positive isn’t real

        This probably explains why the iPad switched not USB-C. Just the slightly smaller size keeps the iPhone on Lightning ?

      • The Lightning connector has added some functionality since its introduction, though I can’t remember what offhand. Digital audio, perhaps. It can do all the audio/video output that the 30-pin connector did, so your list for USB-C overlaps with what Lightning was doing, but doing earlier.

        USB-C brings a lot of functionality that isn’t needed for a phone (seriously: the only thing you need to do with that port most of the time is charge; occasionally you might play music from it). You won’t find a lot of people eager to plug in a second screen to their phone.
        USB-C also brings problems: unreliable cables. The number of dubious cables which can’t support the power demands (and hence are a fire risk) is pretty notable. Take a guess at whether Apple would want people to be able to buy cables from any old place with adapters it has no control over to charge their pricey phones.

      • Iffy cables:
        – that’s OK for Macs and iPads, but not iPhones ? Weird !
        – Also, there are plenty of iffy Lightning cables, I know I shouldn’t but I got a few in my emergency kits for guests that I’m not 100% sure are legit. I’m switching to Anker’s 3-plug ones now that I need Micro & -C myself. My old ones are hydra cables, Anker’s are just 1 plug w/ 2 converters… I take that as a hint my hydras are bad design.
        – I never quite understood why devices trust their cables and chargers. Shouldn’t there be over-current protection inside the phones/tablets/laptops ? Not just Apple’s issue, that one.

        Micro-USB+USB3 (even USB2 optionally, see MHL – why did that die ??) also had video and sound support , so before Lightning and a fairly obvious carry-over requirement for USB-C. AFAIK, USB-C does *everything* Micro-USB did, all that’s needed is a passive USB-A or micro-USB to USB-C cable, and legacy stuff Just Works.

        Also, I copy stuff onto my phone via USB at least once a week. It’s just a no-brainer, my phone is hooked up to my PC for charging, I just drag and drop media I want to peruse while on the road, via Windows Explorer, just like a local hard disk. More speed is always nice for that. Like Widgets, I guess you don’t miss it till you’re hooked to it ^^ And I’m fairly sure a good portion of my low-tech users would use something DeX-like (Huawei’s equivalent is better, actually) when it gets just a tad better.

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