Start Up No.980: the vitamin D myth, how smart TVs pay, Brexit’s paranoid fantasy, where Apple stumbled, and more

Norma Jean Baker working in a US armaments factory, 1944
Norma Jean Dougherty, as she then was, working on a drone (really) in 1944. Haven’t got it? Put it this way: she isn’t winding a candle. Now we have some different AirPower to expect. Get it?

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A selection of 14 links for you. We’ve got a lot of things to get through today, so let’s get started. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg news: searching on YouTube lands conspiracy theories instead • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Drew Harwell:


Conspiracy theories about the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have dominated YouTube this week, illustrating how the world’s most popular video site is failing to prevent its algorithm from helping popularize viral hoaxes and misinformation.

More than half of the top 20 search results for her initials, “RBG,” on Wednesday pointed to false far-right videos, some claiming doctors are using mysterious illegal drugs to keep her alive, according to a review by The Washington Post. Ginsburg has been absent from oral arguments at the Supreme Court this week as she recuperates from recent surgery to remove cancer from her lungs. Tests revealed Friday that she will need no further treatment and that her recovery is on track.

The falsehoods, most of which originated with the fringe movement QAnon, dramatically outnumbered results from credible news sources. Only one of the top results came from a mainstream news site, CNN, and it was an 11-month-old interview about her career. The algorithm rewarded the conspiracy videos over reliable news based on what it calculated was their “relevance,” signaling that the videos were probably new, popular or suitable to the search. By Thursday, a day after YouTube was contacted by The Washington Post, searches for “RBG” also surfaced multiple videos from mainstream news organizations.


Yes I’m afraid 2019 is off to a flying start. Welcome back.
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Is sunscreen the new margarine? • Outside Online

Rowan Jacobsen:


In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of [Vitamin D supplements] ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation?

As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled.

These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health—that big orange ball shining down from above.

One of the leaders of this rebellion is a mild-mannered dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh named Richard Weller. For years, Weller swallowed the party line about the destructive nature of the sun’s rays. “I’m not by nature a rebel,” he insisted when I called him up this fall. “I was always the good boy that toed the line at school. This pathway is one which came from following the data rather than a desire to overturn apple carts.”

Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.

It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?


Sounds bonkers but: uh-huh.

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Common questions about environmentally-lit interfaces • Bob Burrough

Burrough used to work at Apple, where he was closely involved in developing the iPhone and iPad:


An environmentally-lit interface takes information from the environment around the device and uses it to render physically-accurate things on the screen. It appears as if the lights around you are shining on the things on the screen. If the lighting in your room is bright, then the things on your screen are brightly lit. They can even take on complex characteristics like mother-of-pearl or opal…

[But isn’t this very clunky? How’s that going to work in practice?]

The very first haptics-enabled iOS devices we built were iPod Touches with haptic actuators sandwiched between the screen and rest of the device. They were an inch thick and powered by a pack of AA batteries hung on a wire outside the device. They were ridiculous-looking; nothing you would expect to be used in real life. It took many iterations to develop what eventually became Apple’s Taptic Engine. Today, no one would question the elegance of that feature of Apple’s most popular products.

To date, every demo of an environmentally-lit interface has used retrofitted hardware. None of these represent the ideal device capable of an environmentally-lit interface.


It’s interesting – the idea that elements on the screen will look as though they’re real and in your environment. And the fact about the Taptic Engine is quite the thing.

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Taking the smarts out of smart TVs would make them more expensive • The Verge


Nilay Patel: You guys are committed to low price points and you often beat the industry at those price points. Can you hit those price points without the additional data collection that TV does if you don’t have an ad business or a data business on top of the TV?

Bill Baxter, CTO of TV maker Vizio: So that’s a great question. Actually, we should have a beer and have a long, long chat about that.

So look, it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV.

This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.

And then I need to make money off those TVs. They live in households for 6.9 years — the average lifetime of a Vizio TV is 6.9 years. You would probably be amazed at the number of people come up to me saying, “I love Vizio TVs, I have one” and it’s 11 years old. I’m like, “Dude, that’s not even full HD, that’s 720p.”

…And the reason why we do that is there are ways to monetize that TV and data is one, but not only the only one. It’s sort of like a business of singles and doubles, it’s not home runs, right? You make a little money here, a little money there. You sell some movies, you sell some TV shows, you sell some ads, you know. It’s not really that different than The Verge website.


Well, it’s a point of view. Now let’s rewind a couple of years…
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February 2017: VIZIO to pay $2.2m to FTC, state of New Jersey to settle charges it collected viewing histories on 11 million smart televisions without users’ consent • Federal Trade Commission


VIZIO, Inc., one of the world’s largest manufacturers and sellers of internet-connected “smart” televisions, has agreed to pay $2.2m to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General that it installed software on its TVs to collect viewing data on 11 million consumer TVs without consumers’ knowledge or consent.

The stipulated federal court order requires VIZIO to prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices, and prohibits misrepresentations about the privacy, security, or confidentiality of consumer information they collect. It also requires the company to delete data collected before March 1, 2016, and to implement a comprehensive data privacy program and biennial assessments of that program.


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Los Angeles accuses Weather Channel app of covertly mining user data • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Natasha Singer:


One of the most popular online weather services in the United States, the Weather Channel app has been downloaded more than 100 million times and has 45 million active users monthly.

The government said the Weather Company, the business behind the app, unfairly manipulated users into turning on location tracking by implying that the information would be used only to localize weather reports. Yet the company, which is owned by IBM, also used the data for unrelated commercial purposes, like targeted marketing and analysis for hedge funds, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses the Weather Channel of manipulating users by implying that tracking data would be used only to localize weather reports.

The city’s lawsuit cited an article last month in The New York Times that detailed a sprawling industry of companies that profit from continuously snooping on users’ precise whereabouts. The companies collect location data from smartphone apps to cater to advertisers, stores and investors seeking insights into consumer behavior.


Covertly mining user data. Is this better or worse that using your computer to covertly mine cryptocurrency? Discuss.
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Widely cited study of fake news retracted by researchers • Rolling Stone

Lilly Dancyger:


The study sought to determine the role of short attention spans and information overload in the spread of fake news. To do this, researchers compared the empirical data from social networking sites that show that fake news is just as likely to be shared as real news — a fact that Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University and a co-author of the study, stresses to Rolling Stone is still definitely true — to a simplified model they created of a social media site where they could control for various factors.

Because of an error in processing their findings, their results showed that the simplified model was able to reproduce the real-life numbers, determining that people spread fake news because of their short attention spans and not necessarily, for example, because of foreign bots promoting particular stories. Last spring, the researchers discovered the error when they tried to reproduce their results and found that while attention span and information overload did impact how fake news spread through their model network, they didn’t impact it quite enough to account for the comparative rates at which real and fake news spread in real life. They alerted the journal right away, and the journal deliberated for almost a year whether to issue a correction or a retraction, before finally deciding on Monday to retract the article.


Note the “still definitely true” bit. Also, could I just point out: this is Rolling Stone writing an article about the retraction of a peer-reviewed paper from the Nature group. Hello, 2019, how ya feeling.
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Report: AirPower has entered production and coming soon [updated] • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


Hong Kong website ChargerLAB cites a “credible source” within Apple’s supply chain who claims Chinese manufacturer Luxshare Precision has started production of the AirPower. In a conversation on Chinese messaging app WeChat, the source adds he has heard the AirPower will be released soon…

Luxshare is a member of the Wireless Power Consortium behind the Qi standard and also assembles AirPods for Apple — and Lightning to USB-C cables, according to ChargerLAB. Reports had suggested Luxshare would be a primary supplier of the AirPower since as early as February 2017…

A few weeks ago, developer Steve Troughton-Smith said he’s heard Apple may have overcome technical challenges with the AirPower and could move forward with a release. Those technical challenges included overheating and interference issues, according to Sonny Dickson, an occasional source of Apple leaks.


Well, that would be fun. The longest-delayed Apple product finally seeing the light.
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Poland calls for ‘joint’ EU-Nato stance on Huawei after spying arrest • The Guardian


Poland’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, called for the European Union and Nato to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets.

Brudziński said Poland wanted to continue cooperating with China but that a discussion was needed on whether to exclude Huawei from some markets.

“There are concerns about Huawei within Nato as well. It would make most sense to have a joint stance, among EU member states and Nato members,” he told broadcaster RMF FM.

“We want relations with China that are good, intensive and attractive for both sides,” he added.

Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecommunications equipment, is facing intense scrutiny in the west over its relationship with China’s government.

In August, the US president, Donald Trump, signed a bill that barred the US government from using Huawei equipment and is considering an executive order that would also ban US companies from doing so.

In December, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada at the request of the US, which wants her extradited to face charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.

Seeking to distance itself from the Polish incident, Huawei on Saturday said in a statement it had sacked Wang, whose “alleged actions have no relation to the company”.


How this (and ZTE’s position) plays out over the rest of this year could be crucial to China’s position in 5G, and the progress of 5G. If this is also applied to Huawei handsets (a faint but real possibility) it would really put a crimp on things. Expect recriminations if that happens.
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Apple’s errors • Stratechery

Ben Thompson, with the only take you need on Apple’s revenue warning at the start of January:


to the extent that iPhone XS sales slowed in October, Apple likely expected the iPhone XR to pick up the slack; I strongly suspect the XR failed to live up to expectations.

This too, though, should have been predictable: sure, from a feature perspective the XR seemed remarkably competitive with the XS, but we have ample evidence that iPhone buyers want the best possible iPhone. After this year’s iPhone keynote I wrote:


There is, of course, the question of cannibalism: if the XR is so great, why spend $250 more on an XS, or $350 more for the giant XS Max? This is where the iPhone X lesson matters. Last year’s iPhone 8 was a great phone too, with the same A11 processor as the iPhone X, a high quality LCD screen like the iPhone XR, and a premium aluminum-and-glass case (and 3D Touch!). It also had Touch ID and a more familiar interface, both arguably advantages in their own right, and the Plus size that so many people preferred.


It didn’t matter: Apple’s best customers, not just those who buy an iPhone every year, but also those whose only two alternatives are “my current once-flagship iPhone” or “the new flagship iPhone” are motivated first-and-foremost by having the best; price is a secondary concern. That is why the iPhone X was the best-selling smartphone, and the iPhone 8 — which launched two months before the iPhone X — a footnote.

It remains to be seen the extent to which this is the case globally, but the market where having the flagship matters most has always been China. iPhone XS sales slowing and not being picked up by the just-launched XR certainly explain the timing of the missed forecast.


After Apple delivered its warning, Samsung and then LG followed suit. It’s an economy thing, perhaps. But his point that the “S” updates don’t work in China is well made.
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The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit • The Guardian

Fintan O’Toole:


In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony. And, as [Len] Deighton successfully demonstrated [in his book SS-GB], this logic can be founded in an alternative English history. The moment of greatest triumph – the defeat of the Nazis – can be reimagined as the moment of greatest humiliation – defeat by the Nazis. The pain of colonisation and defeat can, in the context of uneasy membership of the EU, be imaginatively appropriated. (Boris Johnson, in the Telegraph of 12 November, claimed that “we are on the verge of signing up for something even worse than the current constitutional position. These are the terms that might be enforced on a colony.”)

SS-GB was in part the inspiration for an even more successful English thriller, Robert Harris’s multimillion-selling Fatherland, published in 1992 and filmed for television in 1994. Harris had begun the novel in the mid-1980s but abandoned it. He revived and finished it explicitly in the context of German reunification in 1990 and of fears that the enemy Britain had defeated twice in the 20th century would end the century by dominating it: “If,” Harris wrote in the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition in 2012, “there was one factor that suddenly gave my fantasy of a united Germany a harder edge, it was the news that exactly such an entity was unexpectedly returning to the heart of Europe.”

…Europe’s role in this weird psychodrama is entirely pre-scripted. It does not greatly matter what the European Union is or what it is doing – its function in the plot is to be a more insidious form of nazism. This is important to grasp, because one of the key arguments in mainstream pro-Brexit political and journalistic discourse would be that Britain had to leave because the Europe it had joined was not the Europe it found itself part of in 2016.


This is a big week for Brexit, of whatever flavour (hard, soft, revoked) in the UK. This piece is a good backgrounder to the enmity behind one side.
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How cartographers for the US military inadvertently created a house of horrors in South Africa • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill:


MaxMind has never told me exactly what their secret sauce is for determining where in the world an IP address is located, but if it doesn’t know that much about an IP address, and knows only that it’s being used by a device somewhere in the United States, it previously gave the coordinates for the front yard of Joyce Taylor’s farm in Kansas; by the time I called her in 2016, 90 million IP addresses were mapped to her home in MaxMind’s database. Any time a device using one of those IP addresses did something terrible, those looking into it assumed the people who lived at the farm were responsible.

When I emailed the company’s founder Thomas Mather, back in 2016, asking why it had associated so many IP addresses with the Kansas farm, he’d been incredibly candid with me, explaining that the company had picked a default digital location for the United States basically at random without realizing it would cause problems for the person who lived there. He asked me what the company should do to rectify the situation. “Do you have a sense of how far away we should locate these lat/lons from a residential address?” he emailed me back. “Do we also need to locate the lat/lon away from business/commercial addresses?”

I was a little stunned at the time to have the CEO of a company ask me for that kind of very basic advice about his own business. The company wound up changing the default location for the U.S. from Joyce Taylor’s farm to a lake nearby. Taylor and the residents of the farm later sued MaxMind; the case settled out of court.


But it didn’t do it for every one of those locations. Such as, yes, one in South Africa. Hill is gradually picking off every badly-assigned house in the dataset.
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Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why • Nature

Alexandra Witze:


Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.


Isn’t this sort of the premise of the 2003 film The Core, which critics noted proved that the centre of the earth is actually cheesy?

Oh, there’s an update: “The release of the World Magnetic Model has been postponed to 30 January due to the ongoing US government shutdown.”
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Mark Zuckerberg’s empire of oily rags • Locus Magazine

Cory Doctorow:


Facebook isn’t a mind-control ray. It’s a tool for finding people who possess uncommon, hard-to-locate traits, whether that’s “person thinking of buying a new refrigerator,” “person with the same rare disease as you,” or “person who might participate in a genocidal pogrom,” and then pitching them on a nice side-by-side or some tiki torches, while showing them social proof of the desirability of their course of action, in the form of other people (or bots) that are doing the same thing, so they feel like they’re part of a crowd.

Even if mind-control rays remain science fiction, Facebook and other commercial surveillance platforms are still worrisome, and not just because they allow people with extreme views to find each other…

…It’s as though Mark Zuckerberg woke up one morning and realized that the oily rags he’d been accumulating in his garage could be refined for an extremely low-grade, low-value crude oil. No one would pay very much for this oil, but there were a lot of oily rags, and provided no one asked him to pay for the inevitable horrific fires that would result from filling the world’s garages with oily rags, he could turn a tidy profit.

A decade later, everything is on fire and we’re trying to tell Zuck and his friends that they’re going to need to pay for the damage and install the kinds of fire-suppression gear that anyone storing oily rags should have invested in from the beginning, and the commercial surveillance industry is absolutely unwilling to contemplate anything of the sort.


The first point is so apt. The internet joins points at the edge; it’s a way to find people with a common interest. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s really bad.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.980: the vitamin D myth, how smart TVs pay, Brexit’s paranoid fantasy, where Apple stumbled, and more

  1. Hi, welcome back and Happy 2019 !

    Re. Apple sales, the S year excuse is iffy:
    1- this not really an S year: all the casings changed, making this year’s phones instantly identifiable for the “social” buyer. Normal S years mean no case change at all, only internals.
    2- Specifically, the mainstream high-volume model changed from 8 to XR, definitely not the same at all.
    S years are hard because if the previous year introduced something nice, people bought the earlier new line and emptied the sales pipeline for the S year. This did not happen last year., unit sales remained flat to down as they have been for 4 years now. This year is hard because people didn’t quite like what happened last year, and this year is more of the same.

    We went from announcing a Supercycle right around the corner to making up an S year that isn’t one.

    I’ll stick to my guns:
    – all flagships are overserving wildly (explains Samsung’s woes too, LG is a basket case in many ways)
    – Apple in particular has lost its easy+sexy advantage (Apple has backslid a bit on that, but above all the competition has surged forward).
    I think there’s an innate contradiction in trying to make a fashion + tech item (fashion/social users are not sophisticated, they’ll value stability more than progress), and a tech + luxury item (luxury is supposed to last and be noble, tech stuff can’t last and is made in sweatshops that pollute immensely and have no tradition).

    I’ve never had an easier time weaning people off flagships in general, iPhones in particular.

  2. In 2006 my sister and I accompanied my mother to an appointment with an osteoporosis specialist/researcher at Northwestern. She had just moved from a medical center in the South and said a precipitous rise in vitamin D deficiency corresponded with the growing use of sunscreen. They were even seeing these deficiencies in youngsters.

  3. I haven’t been too impressed with any of the recent Apple models. Aside from facial recognition, there haven’t been too many upgrades to set them apart from the crowd in my opinion.

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