Start Up No.982: the insect dieoff, Brave’s browser gamble, GMO v Dunning-Kruger, the CES lowdown, Wikipedia is 18!, and more

CC-licensedLet’s celebrate Brexit by stockpiling! photo by Coffee Danube Still Life Photography on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. That’s democracy for ya. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’ • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

…Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.


You think Brexit (or Trump) is bad? The collapse of the insect population is far worse. This is an emergency.
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‘I don’t trust the government to look after me or my dog’: meet the Brexit stockpilers • The Guardian

Sam Wollaston:


In Cambridge, Diane says she is also stockpiling, though she doesn’t want to go into too much detail. “I’m a bit cautious about being presented as an idiot who has a cupboard full of stuff,” she says. She’s OK about using her surname, though: she is Diane Coyle, OBE, FACSS, the economist, Bennett professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge, former adviser to the Treasury, vice-chair of the BBC Trust, member of the Competition Commission, winner of the Indigo prize … in short, really not an idiot.

“The point about supply chains,” she explains, “is that the things you buy in the supermarket today were on the road last night. Supermarkets now don’t have warehouses full of stuff. If we have a no deal and the delays go up even by 12 hours – although I see there’s a new report saying it is going to be much more – then things will stop being put on the shelves. They will run out. And it’s not just stuff we buy from the EU, and it’s not just fresh produce – it’s quite a lot of things.”

Coyle knows that she can’t get by without a cuppa and doesn’t want to run out of teabags or coffee because she didn’t get any in before a no-deal exit. “It’s things that matter to me, that we import, and it’s a bit of insurance.”

…Does she really expect empty shelves this time? “I don’t know – it’s completely uncertain. There are serious people saying the chances of a no-deal exit are significant. And even if they are only 10%, and it’s 90% we’ll have a deal, why would you not have that extra bit of insurance? It’s perfectly sensible.”


Written before Tuesday’s vote, but everyone – literally everyone – knew that Tuesday’s vote would go against May.

If Diane Coyle thinks it’s an issue… that’s concerning. (She’s married to Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, a former industrial correspondent, who also knows this stuff.)
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Brave browser will pay you to view ads that respect your privacy • CNet

Stephen Shankland:


ads and ad trackers take their toll on computing power, battery life and network usage. And then some ads are just plain bad. About one in 200 ads is a form of malware, and more than one in 100 video ads is fraudulent, according to December report from security company Confiant.

Sure, we could pay our way to a healthier internet. Spending money on paywalls and subscriptions is a great way to get online video, news and music without ads’ downsides. But honestly, how many services are you going to pay for on top of your phone bill, broadband, Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify and Amazon Prime? We don’t generally bristle at ads in magazines and newspapers, and some of us even tune into the Super Bowl to watch them.

The first phase of Brave’s ad system won’t actually pay anybody anything, but instead will just get the system on its feet. Actual payments are scheduled to arrive in several weeks with the release of Brave 1.0. When it kicks in, you’ll get 70% of the ad revenue. Brave collects the rest. A slider will let you pick how many ads to see each day, from one to 20. Just seeing an ad generates a bit of revenue, but clicking on it generates more.

It’s an opt-in system. So unless you enable it, you’ll just keep getting the regular ad-blocking Brave.

“If enough opt in, that could become the main revenue of the company,” Eich said, adding that he thinks it’s possible that 40% of users could sign up.


Publishers are furious about this, and you can see why: it’s adblocking and then Brave inserts its own ads. Where’s the money for the publishers who provide the content? Meanwhile, Brave will track you, just like all the other ad systems, to serve you “relevant” ads.

But I also think Eich’s hope for 40% signing up is wildly optimistic because it’s going to be done with cryptocurrency. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
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Canadian startup North made Alexa smart glasses that actually look like glasses • WIRED

Lauren Goode:


Focals run on the company’s custom software, built on top of Android. The software interface is simple, almost primitive, in its early stages. Download the Focals app and pair it with your glasses to see the weather, receive and respond to text messages, view your calendar appointments, and call an Uber. Another feature, called Go, relies on databases from Mapbox and Foursquare to either guide you to a specific location, or create a walking experience based on nearby points of interest. You navigate all of this by nudging and pressing on the tiny joystick on the ring.

You can also use Alexa. Long-pressing on the joystick summons Alexa, which hears your voice commands and responds to you through the glasses. The speaker and microphone are built into the right arm of the Focals, along with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. You can ask Alexa on Focals to do nearly anything that the virtual assistant can do on another Alexa-equipped devices, except it won’t play long strings of audio, and it won’t show you videos.

My second experience trying on Focals was dramatically different from the first. The glasses still weren’t custom-fit to my face, so I sometimes felt cross-eyed while I tried to focus on the floating interface. And as much as North refers to the light reflection as a hologram, there isn’t any volume or depth to the image being projected into your eye. It’s a flat image, one that lands somewhere between the chin and the shoulder of a person you might be talking to.

But I started to get a better sense of what North hopes to accomplish with these anti-smart-glasses glasses.


Iterate, iterate, iterate. Some year soon it’s going to be right.
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Consumerism in crisis as millennials stay away from shops • The Conversation

Brendan Canavan is senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Huddersfield:


Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas.

The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.

Some of this shift in consumption may be ideological. Researchers have suggested that environmental concerns might be pushing some people to consume less. Economic drivers are also probably involved. Since the 2008 financial crash, for instance, alternative consumer communities have emerged. They are more collaborative and self-sufficient; doing things among themselves rather than buying in from outside. The rise of the swapping movement is a good example.

Yet more broadly, lifestyle changes are seeing us moving away from the consumer model which has dominated post-war capitalist economies. Buying more and more things as a source of identity and meaning seems to be gradually but consistently falling out of favour.


Huddersfield is one of the places where retail outlets are closing. Not even students are taking part.
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DuckDuckGo taps Apple Maps to power private search results • Spread Privacy


We’re excited to announce that map and address-related searches on DuckDuckGo for mobile and desktop are now powered by Apple’s MapKit JS framework, giving you a valuable combination of mapping and privacy. As one of the first global companies using Apple MapKit JS, we can now offer users improved address searches, additional visual features, enhanced satellite imagery, and continually updated maps already in use on billions of Apple devices worldwide.

With this updated integration, Apple Maps are now available both embedded within our private search results for relevant queries, as well as available from the “Maps” tab on any search result page.


DDG is still miniscule compared to Google, but it’s profitable and not going away any time soon. This is a clever way to enhance its “privacy” story.
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CES 2019: a show report • Learning By Shipping

Steve Sinofsky tramped around so you don’t have to:


There are three big developments that are enabling the vast majority of scenarios on display at CES 2019:

Any screen/speaker can play any streaming media. Whether via casting or cross-platform runtimes, any device can now connect to a streaming audio or video service and display or play content. The hardest problem of the 2000s was actually getting a signal from one place to another — video over CAT5, whole house audio, or craziness like wireless HDMI were all precursors to the wifi/cloud/processor based streaming we experience today. By the way, it is just as amazing that everything being said applies as much to a house as it does to a moving car!

Any device can be turned on/off/controlled by voice. Seemingly out of nowhere, everything can be controlled by shouting at it. Our homes can now be populated by a whole new family of digital friends Alexa, Siri, Bixby, and OK Google [sic]. Again, it was just a few years ago that every single device had a different way, if any way at all, to control it from another part of the house. By the way, it is just as amazing that everything being said applies as much to controlling within a home as it does to controlling from the other side of the earth. Plus these virtual assistants can be helpful in all sorts of other ways.

Any device can have a radio and connect to any other device with a radio. Every device is now a radio. Radios can be WiFi, GSM, or Bluetooth. The ability to have a radio and power it has become so cost and energy efficient, one can hardly find anything that doesn’t have a radio in it. Even the cheapest TV remote controls are now RF solving one of the most annoying problems of the 1990s which was how to avoid “displaying” all your AV gear (gear which no longer exists). By the way, it is just as amazing that everything being said applies to devices plugged into a wall as it does to devices that just sit there waiting to come to life and connect when needed. It wasn’t that long ago that a home alarm system required running wires from every door and window to power those sensors which are now powered by coin-batteries for years at a time.


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Happy 18th birthday, Wikipedia: let’s celebrate the Internet’s good grownup • The Washington Post

Stephen Harrison:


YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki announced a plan last March to pair misleading conspiracy videos with links to corresponding articles from Wikipedia. Facebook has also released a feature using Wikipedia’s content to provide users more information about the publication source for articles in their feed.

Wikipedia’s rise is driven by a crucial difference in values that separates it from its peers in the top 10 websites: On Wikipedia, truth trumps self-expression.

Last year, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told NPR that Wikipedia has largely avoided the “fake news” problem, raising the question of what the encyclopedia does differently than other popular websites. As Brian Feldman suggested in New York magazine, perhaps it’s simply the willingness within the Wikipedia community to delete. If a user posts bad information on Wikipedia, other users are authorized and empowered to remove that unencyclopedic content. It’s a striking contrast to Twitter, which allows lies and inflammatory statements to remain on its platform for years.

The Wikipedia community has also embraced automated technologies to protect the integrity of the encyclopedia. While YouTube scans videos for potential content violations using its Content ID database, the community of Wikipedia editors have created editing bots that go further by making determinations about content quality.


This is the thing that makes Wikipedia so necessary today.
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Feds can’t force you to unlock your iPhone with finger or face, judge rules • Forbes

Thomas Brewster


Previously, US judges had ruled that police were allowed to force unlock devices like Apple’s iPhone with biometrics, such as fingerprints, faces or irises. That was despite the fact feds weren’t permitted to force a suspect to divulge a passcode. But according to a ruling uncovered by Forbes, all logins are equal.

The order came from the US District Court for the Northern District of California in the denial of a search warrant for an unspecified property in Oakland. The warrant was filed as part of an investigation into a Facebook extortion crime, in which a victim was asked to pay up or have an “embarassing” video of them publicly released. The cops had some suspects in mind and wanted to raid their property. In doing so, the feds also wanted to open up any phone on the premises via facial recognition, a fingerprint or an iris.

While the judge agreed that investigators had shown probable cause to search the property, they didn’t have the right to open all devices inside by forcing unlocks with biometric features.


This is going to lead to all sorts of negative publicity around cases very much like this one. Imagine if there’s a terror incident.
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Strongest opponents of GM foods know the least but think they know the most • The Guardian

Ian Sample:


The most extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least about science but believe they know the most, researchers have found.

The findings from public surveys in the US, France and Germany suggest that rather than being a barrier to the possession of strongly held views, ignorance of the matter at hand might better be described as a fuel.

“This is part and parcel of the psychology of extremism,” said Philip Fernbach, a researcher at the University of Colorado and co-author of the 2017 book The Knowledge Illusion. “To maintain these strong counter-scientific consensus views, you kind of have to have a lack of knowledge.”

Fernbach and others analysed surveys completed by nationally representative samples of the US, French and German public. Those who took part were asked about their attitudes to GM foods and given instructions on how to judge their understanding of the topic. Next, they completed a scientific literacy test. Among the statements the participants had to wrestle with were: “Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do” (false), and “the oxygen we breathe comes from plants” (true).

The results from more than 2,500 respondents revealed the curious trend. “What we found is that as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up,” Fernbach said.


When I was writing a lot about GM foods, about 20 years ago, it was noticeable that many of the arguments against them came from emotion. (There are some legitimate arguments against GM, around intellectual property on seeds.) But I suspect this result could be generalised; it’s something of a Dunning-Kruger corollary.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: there was a missing right bracket in yesterday’s issue. Please insert this one where it seems to fit: )

19 thoughts on “Start Up No.982: the insect dieoff, Brave’s browser gamble, GMO v Dunning-Kruger, the CES lowdown, Wikipedia is 18!, and more

  1. re. Brave browser monetization. As a Frenchman, I still have hangups about how smart Minitel’s monetization model was compared to the web: single bill from telco, “sites” had several price levels clearly stated in their “url” (3614 vs 3615…3617). And I’m still hurting from having to beg the Minitel guy for prize money when trying to set up a real-time Internet tie-in competition with France’s national broadcaster 10 years ago.

    Like for apps, I’m wondering if the sustainable model for sites isn’t subscriptions. It works for video, music, podcasts, ebooks… I hate those esp. their death-by-a-1,000-cuts feeling, but a centralized subscription that aims to simplify things and only slightly rise ARPU (not balloon it up like the all too frequent “free” morphing into “extortionate rent” start-up pivot). I’d pay $5/mo for Web sites and another $5/mo for my apps, which is way more than I spend or earn via ads. If Apple is smart, that’s one of their upcoming “services”, though it’ll likely be $20/mo ;-p Nice lock-in for the app stores too, at a time both Apple’s and Google’s are seeing high-profile exits.

  2. re. smart glasses: yeah ! I even advocated for a ring as the input way back when. Now, just wait for a reasonable price and Google Assistant.

    As with the rest though, I’m sure 3D has its uses, but they’re niche. Give us Regular Joes a 2D notifications HUD. I think even just a ticker display would be enough for most uses, no need for a full-screen (full-lens ?) display. Like with smarwatches, I think there’s much overkill going on. Don’t tell the smartglasses guys they forgot the fitness stuff ;-p

    Also, reviewers are weird: “I blinked, my eyelashes cut across the projector embedded on the right side of the frames, which interrupted the holographic image in front of me.” So, like, you wanted the picture to stay on while your eyes were closed, because… ?

    • Oh, and given how happy I am with my neckband earphones, I think smartglasses should be neckband-based too, solves the bulk issues (aesthetics, battery size, other space constraints…) and let them double up as earphones (which is power-hungry). Makes it impossible to lose them too !

  3. re. Apple Maps privacy: is there any document anywhere that details how Apple doesn’t collect, doesn’t use and doesn’t sell access to or raw data from Maps ? And how that impacts the overall privacy of users who’re tracked anyway by their ISP, their apps ?

    Apple’s privacy stance seems both vague and empty. They’re privacizing who knows what who knows how and that’s available on the side anyway ?

      • Which is vague and empty fluff, and doesn’t mention “maps” once. I much prefer Google’s statement, which is precise hence frightening, but doesn’t make me feel I’m being spinned at:

        Apple’s whole doc feels distinctly Trumpian, using vague terms and narrow+limited examples to setup up readers to build their own mental image of what they’re being told (of what they wish they’re being told) while not actually telling anything specific or precise, so telling nothing really.

        Which of the Apple’s 6 privacy paragraphs wouldn’t work if you replaced “Apple” with “Google” ? I think 4 undoubtedly work for Google too: ID, Pay, data encryption, and apps rules. 2 I’m unsure about:
        1- selling personal data to 3rd parties: I think Google charges for access to the data, but doesn’t sell/share the data itself ? And Apple’s wording makes the same possible too.
        2- Differential Privacy. I’m unclear on what Apple uses it, if at all, and they don’t say. Is it on 100% of people for 100% of the data ? If so, why don’t they say it ?

        Reciprocally, which part of Google’s much longer and much more descriptive privacy doc wouldn’t work for Apple ?

      • But again, this is an advertisement, not a 360 analysis. As all PR, it is made up of crumbs of truth in a soup of omissions In a mystery bowl of no-context.
        Taking the example of Safari:
        but iOS is, from a privacy and security standpoint
        – the only ecosystem that enforces browser monoculture, always a bad idea for contimination resistance
        – the only ecosystem that bans privacy and security add-ons, and anti-malware appsd
        – forcing a not-particularly safe browser on all users
        – creating a single point of failure if your concern is the government

        Even my high-school French Lit. teacher was saying that the most valuable skill of all is, and will always be, critical thinking.

        Confusing PR crumbs of truth for a comprehensive, authoritative 360 is the exact opposite. I’ve got no answer to someone who links Apple PR when discussing security and privacy.

      • It was dumb of me to use brackets. Should read:

        “Taking the example of Safari, [insert list of nice things here], but:

      • Re. ” What happens on iPhone stays on iPhone”:
        …nor maybe not

      • On the positive side, reading that PR I’ve had a breakthrough about why Apple triggers me:
        1- they’re on my turf, IT. If they were making cars, ballet, bread I wouldn’t care
        2- they’re extremely successful and held up as a universal goal or example. If they were failing or dismissed as a one-off, I wouldn’t care
        3- they’re between police state and totalitarian on the anarchy – organized – police – totalitarian (it’s a continuum) typology of organizations, and I’m deeply allergic to that.. a combination of growing up in the shadow of the USSR during the last throes of France’s surprisingly totalitarian post war regime.

        All that sudden insight doesn’t mean I think I’m wrong, heh ;-p

  4. Sigh, I miss writing, but puff-pieces like the above on Wikipedia indicate what sort of grief would await a critic. Wikipedia is notoriously undevoted to “truth” and has had long insane (in my view) debates about disfavoring truth versus what’s written by any journalist (n.b. these are not the same thing!). What they are devoted to doing is reflecting the perspective of the educated Westerner. Don’t misunderstand my objection, that’s a fine goal as these things go. But it’s not any intrinsic truth. And it’s not magic. It’s found a niche as a kind of excuse for the attention-driven model of Google and Facebook, etc. But the article doesn’t connect that Wikipedia practices are lauded precisely because it’s being used as that excuse by Google, Facebook, etc.

    I find these sort of articles very sad from one angle. They read like someone overwhelmed by how structural inequality and oppressive economics can be harmful to society. But they have no power to change any of that, so they end up writing about how billionaire’s philanthropy can make an inspiring difference to the community.

    • Couldn’t precisely the same objection(s) be levelled at the Enc Brit or Microsoft’s CD-ROM version, with the added criticism in their cases that they have a profit motive so who knows what might be happening behind the scenes? If we’re seeking “truth” we get into deep philosophical waters. But “objectively demonstrable”, for most uses of objective, works. The “no original research” rule is perhaps the most stifling, but the simple way around that is to do the research and write it up, of course. Untrusted source? Work your way up the list of sources. In that sense, it’s meritocratic, and the fact that Wikipedia has banned some “sources” as unreliable shows that.

      • No, no, you’re thinking of a different kind of critique, moral equivalence.
        That’s not what I’m saying at all. To vastly simplify, if you have to chose
        between models that “Truth is slavishly whatever appears in 1) _The Guardian_
        2) _The Daily Mail_ 3) the most popular YouTube video (wisdom-of-crowds)”,
        then yes, I’d contend taking option #1 is better than #2 or #3, and
        they are not the same by any means. However, my point is the overall
        model that “Truth is slavishly whatever appears in …” is a horrible
        way of approaching the topic of Truth in general. It’s not a secret
        sauce or doing things the right way in any encyclopedic sense. Of
        course it’s going to get praise from writers culturally and
        politically favored, and bashed by those against. But that type of
        cultural dispute is masking what sort of thoroughly broken system
        produces such poor models.

        It’s not that Wikipedia is backing a bad horse. As horses go, it has
        reliable horses. But horseback-riding is a very limited form of

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