Start Up No.985: Dorsey’s dithering, testing twin DNA, VR tests courtroom prejudice, is hi-fi streaming necessary?, and more

Apple may not have a flexible screen in the offing, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily lose out. CC-licensed photo by Brian Bilek on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Keep counting. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Jack Dorsey has no clue what he wants • HuffPost UK

Ashley Feinberg:


My only real goal was to get Dorsey to speak in specifics, about anything. In almost every interview he does, he’ll lament his past mistakes and talk about his various high-minded visions for improving the platform: improving conversational health, reducing echo chambers, increasing transparency and about 10 other rote, buzzy phrases.

But press him for a clear, unambiguous example of nearly anything, and Dorsey shuts down. At one point, for instance, Dorsey explained that Twitter was working toward using machine learning to spot harassment before it’s even reported. When asked how Twitter is handling the problem in the meantime, Dorsey had this to say:


Most of our priority right now in terms of health, which is the No. 1 priority of the company, is around being proactive. How do we remove the burden from the victims or bystanders from reporting in the first place? It’s way too mechanical. It’s way too much work. … But ultimately, we want to make sure that the number of reports that we receive is trending downward. And that will be because of two reasons. One, people are seeing far less abuse or harassment or other things that are against the terms of service. Or that we’re being more proactive about it. So we want to do both. So a lot of our work is that, and then better prioritization in the meantime. A lot more transparency, clearer actions within the product.


Those are certainly words, though none of them appeared to answer my question.


The interview is wonderful for its uncompromising approach (of which that is an example). Feinberg is also a pretty astringent presence on Twitter itself: pH about 1. She’ll have your skin off before you realise it.
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Why Apple will be late to foldable phones (and still win) • Tom’s Guide

Jason Snell (who has written for years and years about Apple):


If Apple did build a foldable iPhone, it would probably be best to think of it as an iPhone that could expand to become a small iPad. Given the power of Apple’s A-series processors and the increasingly sophisticated and PC-like features of the iPad, that could be a compelling product.

There’s another possibility, and it arises from a long-standing Apple design philosophy. This is what I’ve taken to calling “Jobs’ Law,” the idea that every new iteration of an Apple product should strive to be thinner and lighter than the previous generation.

A foldable phone would seem to go against Jobs’ Law, because that folding mechanism will presumably mean thicker phones, at least at the start. But I wonder if having a folding mechanism would enable Apple to design much smaller iPhones. While Apple has embraced large phones like the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS Max due to market pressures, I’m not entirely convinced that the company’s heart is in it.

Maybe the future of the foldable iPhone is more like a Palm phone that flips out to become a phablet, not a phablet that becomes a tablet.

Sure, a foldable iPhone could be a giant phablet that folds out into a small iPad. But it could also be a small, iPhone SE-size model that flips open to provide iPhone XS Max-style real estate on demand. Maybe the future of the foldable iPhone is more like a Palm phone that flips out to become a phablet, not a phablet that becomes a tablet.


The thing about a foldable iPhone (or iPad?) is that you’d want the bigger screen occasionally – like the people I see on the train who watch downloaded or streaming video on a tablet-sized screen. Much of the time you wouldn’t.

I really can’t figure out whether it’s a gimmick or something useful.
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Twins get some ‘mystifying’ results when they put five DNA ancestry kits to the test • CBC News

Charlsie Agro and Luke Denne:


One set of identical twins, two different ancestry profiles.

At least that’s the suggestion from one of the world’s largest ancestry DNA testing companies.

Last spring, Marketplace host Charlsie Agro and her twin sister, Carly, bought home kits from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA, and mailed samples of their DNA to each company for analysis.

Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies.

In most cases, the results from the same company traced each sister’s ancestry to the same parts of the world — albeit by varying percentages.

But the results from California-based 23andMe seemed to suggest each twin had unique twists in their ancestry composition.


Ah but: identical twins’ DNA can actually be different. Perhaps read this link rather than the main one, since it’s your science lesson (if you didn’t already know it) for today.
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Here come the internet blackouts • New America

Justin Sherman:


[The blackout method which sees] states deliberately severing internet connections within their country has an important history. In 2004, the Maldivian government caused an internet blackout when citizens protested the president; Nepal similarly caused a blackout shortly thereafter. In 2007, the Burmese government apparently damaged an underwater internet cable in order to “staunch the flow of pictures and messages from protesters reaching the outside world.” In 2011, Egypt cut most internet and cell services within its borders as the government attempted to quell protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak; Libya then did the same after its own unrest. In 2014, Syria had a major internet outage amid its civil war. In 2018, Mauritania was taken entirely offline for two days when undersea submarine internet cables were cut, around the same time as the Sierra Leone government may have imposed an internet blackout in the same region.

When we think about terms like “cyberspace” and “internet,” it can be tempting to associate them with vague notions of a digital world we can’t touch. And while this is perhaps useful in some contexts, this line of thinking forgets the very real wires, servers, and other hardware that form the architecture of the internet. If these physical elements cease to function, from a cut wire to a storm-damaged server farm, the internet, too, is affected. More than that, if a single entity controls—or can at least access—that hardware for a region or even an entire country, government-caused internet blackouts are a tempting method of censorship and social control.

Which is to say: As countries around the world tighten control of the internet within their borders, we can expect to see some governments with relatively centralized internets—particularly authoritarians or those with authoritarian leanings—literally disconnect their domestic internet networks from the rest of the globe during domestic unrest or other incidents.

As for the second method, we can expect a rise in DDoS attacks against internet infrastructure as millions of wildly insecure Internet of Things (IoT) devices—from smart thermostats to water-pressure sensors—are linked online.


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Racial bias and in-group bias in judicial decisions: evidence from virtual reality courtrooms • NBER

Samantha Bielen, Wim Marneffe, Naci H. Mocan from Hasselt University in Belgium:


We shot videos of criminal trials using 3D Virtual Reality (VR) technology, prosecuted by actual prosecutors and defended by actual defense attorneys in an actual courtroom.

This is the first paper that utilizes VR technology in a non-computer animated setting, which allows us to replace white defendants in the courtroom with individuals who have Middle Eastern or North African descent in a real-life environment. We alter only the race of the defendants in these trials, holding all activity in the courtroom constant (

Law students, economics students and practicing lawyers are randomly assigned to watch with VR headsets, from the view point of the judge, the trials that differed only in defendants’ skin color. Background information obtained from the evaluators allowed us to identify their cultural heritage. Evaluators made decisions on guilt/innocence in these burglary and assault cases, as well as prison sentence length and fine in accordance with the guidelines provided by the relevant law.

There is suggestive evidence of negative in-group bias in conviction decisions where evaluators are harsher against defendants of their own race. There is, however, significant overall racial bias in conviction decisions against minorities.


Clever use of VR – and an important result. The full paper requires NBER access; there were 25 participants seeing six different defendants. They used Oculus Rift.
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Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland: review • NY Mag

Adrian Chen:


One thing you get from reading Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, is that there is nothing inevitable about management trending in a positive direction. Drawing on four years of ethnographic research among Uber drivers, Rosenblat has produced a thoroughly dystopian report that details how millions of drivers are now managed by a computerized system that combines the hard authoritarianism of Frederick Winslow Taylor with the cynical cheerleading of Michael Scott.

But wait: Isn’t the whole point of Uber that you can be your own boss? After all, Uber talks of its drivers not as employees but “partners.” In its propaganda, Uber portrays itself not as a taxi company at all but a technology platform that connects drivers directly to riders. “FREEDOM PAYS WEEKLY,” reads one recruitment ad reproduced in Uberland.

Next to it, there’s a picture of a breezy millennial with shaggy hair and a five-o’clock shadow, a scarf draped rakishly around his neck. He looks so noncorporate that he might not be wearing any pants.

In order to put that idea to rest, Rosenblat must first untangle the myths that made it seem possible in the first place. If you think about it, it’s bizarre that taxi drivers became a symbol of cutting-edge technological disruption. Cab drivers have typically occupied a benighted role in the public imagination: hustlers, criminals, or, at best, misanthropic folk philosophers. Rosenblat offers a valuable history of the ideological work that went into the “gentrification” of the profession.


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Trump’s slippage in support is real • The Bulwark

Bruce Gyory (a “veteran and shrewd New York political operative” according to Bill Kristol):


The slippage is the worst kind—the slow erosion of support from key blocs: swing voters (independents and suburbanites) and those who put Trump over the top (blue collar white men and Republicans over 60).

It’s been registering in a cross section of polling data, not just one poll. Trump’s job approval rating is down to 31% among independents in Gallup. His approval ratings in Rasmussen are down from the 48-49% range of late last year to the 43-44% level of the past week or so. The Marist data for PBS shows a drop of 10% in job approval among Republicans and a decline of 11% among white evangelicals and 17% among suburban men.

And Trump continues to enrage the Dem base while this erosion in his base continues to progress. Blue collar white men being turned off from Trump shouldn’t surprise anyone, for they know the difficulty of living paycheck to paycheck. This, plus the skew of the tax cut package, spells political trouble for Trump long term, especially if a slow down, much less a recession, looms in 2020.


There’s a certain amount of wish fulfilment in this: Kristol is newly installed as “editor-at-large” of The Bulwark, a right-wing (but not Trumpist!) site which seems to be trying to pick up the readers from Kristol’s previous, and now-closed, Weekly Standard. The URL for that Gallup link reads “Trump-Congress Job Approval Mostly Steady Amid Shutdown”.

Perhaps Trump’s support among those famous uneducated whites is eroding, but there’s no election this year.
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Facebook’s internal documents about how it made money off children to be released • Reveal

Nathan Halverson:


Four documents that were either originally sealed or redacted were made partially available to Reveal in October. The documents show widespread confusion by children and their parents, who didn’t understand Facebook continued to charge them as they played games.

Facebook employees began voicing their concerns that people were being charged without their knowledge. The social media company decided to analyze one of the most popular games of the time, Angry Birds, and discovered the average age of people playing it on Facebook was 5 years old, according to newly revealed information.

“In nearly all cases the parents knew their child was playing Angry Birds, but didn’t think the child would be allowed to buy anything without their password or authorization first,” according to an internal Facebook memo. The memo noted that on other platforms, such as Apple’s iPhone, people were required to reauthorize additional purchases, such as by re-entering a password.

A Facebook employee noted that children were likely to be confused by the in-game purchases because it “doesn’t necessarily look like real money to a minor.”

Yet the company continued to deny refunds to children, profiting from their confusion.

In one of the unsealed documents, two Facebook employees deny a refund request from a child whom they refer to as a “whale” – a term coined by the casino industry to describe profligate spenders. The child had entered a credit card number to play a game, and in about two weeks racked up thousands of dollars in charges, according to an excerpt of messages between two employees at the social media giant.


Not a good look for Facebook – though this is from 2012.
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Why high-fidelity streaming is the audio revolution your ears have been waiting for • Forbes

Oisin Lunny:


While our ears may be attuned to lossy compressed audio in most everyday scenarios, the experience of rediscovering high-fidelity lossless digital audio can be nothing short of a revelation. Fine details reappear, performers have more space, sounds have more definition, audio feels warmer, sounds clearer, and is noticeably more pleasurable to listen to. The higher you go with audio file resolution, the better it gets.

Thanks to the new range of streaming apps delivering CD-quality or higher, our beloved “universal jukebox” is undergoing a significant upgrade. Consumer demand for high-resolution audio has been growing steadily, for example users of Deezer HiFi have increased by 71% in the past 12 months alone, and the product is now available in 180 countries and works with a wide range of FLAC streaming compatible devices.

[Bang & Olufsen’s most senior Tonmeister (sound engineer)] Geoff Martin believes that demand for hi-fi streaming audio is growing due to a rise in the number of people buying high-end audio devices. “It used to be that you bought an iPhone and you used the white earbuds, but nowadays people are upgrading to better headphones, so they want a better file and a better app to play it on. The potential is there for somebody that wants to get high quality, and they don’t have to spend a lot of money to get it.”


I’ve sat in for tons of “high-fidelity audio” demonstrations. I’ve only rarely been able to tell the difference; the most noticeable time was at Arcam’s testing studios in Cambridge, when it really was possible to tell the difference. But once you get to 256k MP3, the vast majority of people cannot tell the difference. So no, your ears haven’t been waiting for this, and you shouldn’t listen (aha) to those trying to upsell you with it.
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Rafael Nadal faces his mini-me, Alex de Minaur, at the Australian Open • The New Yorker

Gerald Marzorati:


The difference between men’s and women’s tennis, now, is lateral speed—the quickness to run down, and to get back with zip, balls that are angled far off the court. Not every male player can run, but those who can really can. No player currently on the women’s tour can match that speed. Scientists offer various theories for why men’s bodies lend themselves to faster running: narrower hips that more closely align to the quads and make running more efficient; more lung capacity; larger fast-twitch muscle fibres.

But here’s the thing: no male player thirty years ago got to balls that were way out wide and then went on offense with his returns of them, the way that Rafael Nadal did when he first showed his potential to be an all-time great, in 2005. He was big and fast, sure, with an explosive first step, like a sprinter, toward an incoming ball. And there was a way he had, something I’d never seen before, of seeming to be sliding back to the center of the court—to reëstablish position, in order to give chase again—even before he had fully completed his follow-through. But there was something else, too, something just this side of ineffable: a relentlessness in pursuit of every last ball, driven by—you could glimpse it in his strained facial muscles—a sort of anxious fear of not getting there.


The linked article about why men can be faster is interesting: biomechanics, hormones, and more.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.985: Dorsey’s dithering, testing twin DNA, VR tests courtroom prejudice, is hi-fi streaming necessary?, and more

  1. re Twitter: All the hate and lies are disgusting and frightening. But, I’m deeply uneasy with private corporations making and enforcing laws especially re. speech.

    I’ve been thinking for a while (before the internet actually) that we’re in an era in which “free speech” isn’t enough, because enlightened (and enshadowed) individuals/orgs have to face up to corporations that master both message crafting and message distribution. I remember in my youth student protests running on mimeographs with the help of communist friends, whom I deeply disagreed with but still had an interestingly different outlook and exceptional organizing and propaganda skills. Mimeographs won’t cut it today.

    If corps start making speech rules absent any regulatory framework, 20 years down the line when Rupert Murdoch (he seems immortal) owns Twitter and FB, and runs them the same way he runs his papers ( ), we’re back to “la pensée unique” or worse. And I don’t think “just use another server” works because network effects and money.

    So I understand Jack Dorsey’s shuffling about. “Anything that isn’t unlawful is authorized”. The right approach to the issue is laws via the ballot box, and education. Corporate censorship has lots of negatives.

  2. re. foldable phones, if the use case is unfolding it on a train (when I manage to get a seat), I’m not willing to carry a phone that’s 3-4x thicker and 10x more expensive for that rare seated trip, nor saving a true tablet’s space in my bag (and then running out of battery in the middle of the afternoon because large screen suck up a lot of juice).

    I think for now the price and bulk and battery drawbacks are unacceptable. Maybe 10 years from now…

  3. Interesting tidbit about how Android OS updates are… slowly getting faster:

    I think the key metric isn’t so much how quickly flagships get updated though, mostly because there’s a hefty delay for tests, internal validation, and carrier validation. Plus I don’t care that much about a quick update, I care that the update gets there eventually. I’d be more interested in:
    – number (or percentage) of phones updated. The game is not so much about getting flagships updated more quickly, but about getting low- and mid-rangers updated (and for longer).
    – speed of uptake for new models. Even flagships are famous for being released with the previous Android version, even 6 months in. Bad OEMs sometimes foist years-old versions of Android onto unsuspecting users (looking at you, Samsung !)
    – impact on the custom ROM community. LineageOS seems to be having a hard time remaining active, some very relevant handsets are orphaned. Yet Treble makes it possible to run a vanilla Android copy onto any Treble phone, à la Windows. My best guess would be that fewer people care about having the latest+decrapified OS version: improvements between versions have become minimal. Still, a bit sad. I’d pay $10-$20 for a recent ROM on very old devices (not more though, a new device is $200, $100 if going cheap).

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