Start Up No.990: the coming Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp integration, Japan’s here to hack!, living on bitcoin, and more

With a payback of three months, are scooters surviving long enough to keep companies afloat? CC-licensed photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

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

Scooter hype gives way to tough questions about durability and unit economics • The Drive

Edward Niedermeyer:


That three-month payback period [for a Bird scooter], based on Bird’s projection of improved unit economics during 2018, is a far cry from the less than one month of in-fleet operation that Bird’s scooters have been averaging according to our source. At the time Bird told investors that repairs cost the company 14% of gross revenue, or about 51 cents per ride. Since then widespread reports of “scooter vandalism” have raised fresh questions about the repair and replacement costs that shared scooter companies are facing…

…investors aren’t the only stakeholders who are growing concerned by Bird’s operational challenges. In multiple posts made at the subreddit r/birdchargers in the last week “Bird hunters” who charge the company’s scooters have wondered if the company is “going out of business” and “about to collapse.” The picture that emerges from the subreddit is of chaos: chargers report receiving messages from the company accusing them of “hoarding” scooters in order to game charging bounties (the longer a scooter remains uncharged, the more a charger makes from the company when it charges it) even when they aren’t hoarding, don’t have any scooters or are storing scooters during bad weather (in some cases without being paid for storage).

These issues seem to be tied to a combination of seasonal issues that the Southern California-based company doesn’t seem well-prepared for, a shortage of full-time staff, falling charging bounties, and what appears to be a rampant hoarding problem. There’s even evidence that Bird and other scooter companies are being targeted by startup impound companies who want their slice of those millions in venture capital.


I’m not sure if this is just a generational thing, but I don’t think I’d want to be riding a scooter on a snowy day in London. Or a rainy day in London. Of which there are quite a few. Also, there’s a very effective public transport system of overground buses and underground trains. Does this limit them to fair-weather cities with bad public transport?
link to this extract

Japanese government plans to hack into citizens’ IoT devices • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


The Japanese government approved a law amendment on Friday that will allow government workers to hack into people’s Internet of Things devices as part of an unprecedented survey of insecure IoT devices.

The survey will be carried out by employees of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) under the supervision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

NICT employees will be allowed to use default passwords and password dictionaries to attempt to log into Japanese consumers’ IoT devices.

The plan is to compile a list of insecure devices that use default and easy-to-guess passwords and pass it on to authorities and the relevant internet service providers, so they can take measures to alert consumers and secure the devices.

The survey is scheduled to kick off next month, when authorities plan to test the password security of over 200 million IoT devices, beginning with routers and web cameras. Devices in people’s homes and on enterprise networks will be tested alike.


That’s not going to be controversial at all. Though possibly Japanese consumers are more relaxed about this.
link to this extract

Undercover agents target cybersecurity watchdog • Associated Press

Raphael Satter:


The researchers who reported that Israeli software was used to spy on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s inner circle before his gruesome death are being targeted in turn by international undercover operatives, The Associated Press has found.

Twice in the past two months, men masquerading as socially conscious investors have lured members of the Citizen Lab internet watchdog group to meetings at luxury hotels to quiz them for hours about their work exposing Israeli surveillance and the details of their personal lives. In both cases, the researchers believe they were secretly recorded.

Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert described the stunts as “a new low.”

“We condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms,” he said in a statement Friday. “Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”

Who these operatives are working for remains a riddle, but their tactics recall those of private investigators who assume elaborate false identities to gather intelligence or compromising material on critics of powerful figures in government or business.

Citizen Lab, based out of the Munk School at the University of Toronto, has for years played a leading role in exposing state-backed hackers operating in places as far afield as Tibet , Ethiopia and Syria . Lately the group has drawn attention for its repeated exposés of an Israeli surveillance software vendor called the NSO Group, a firm whose wares have been used by governments to target journalists in Mexico , opposition figures in Panama and human rights activists in the Middle East .


link to this extract

The Wii Shop Channel closes forever next week • Game Informer

Imran Khan:


The question often arises of what happens when a company just decides to close up and shut down the shop, but it hasn’t been too big an issue so far. That will change at the end of this week, when Nintendo becomes the biggest player in the game to shut down a digital distribution shop, in the future effectively ending the ability to download or re-download anything from the Wii Shop.

The shutdown, which was announced on Nintendo’s support website, means that the Wii Shop servers will no longer be accessible. So if there’s games you have paid for but do not currently have downloaded on your Wii, you have until January 30 to get them onto the system memory or associated SD card before Nintendo brings down the axe. This means WiiWare games and Virtual Console titles, as well as any content that needs to be downloaded, like channels. In theory, Skyward Sword’s patch can no longer be downloaded, thus leaving a progress-blocking glitch in the game forever.


There was a similar problem when all the Windows-based digital music stores shut down, but at least they were replaced by services offering the same or more songs. Not so simple with Wii games. (13-year-old’s comment as he plays on Nintendo Switch: “I had no idea it was still open.”)
link to this extract

The facts about Facebook • WSJ

Mark Zuckerberg:


Some worry that ads create a misalignment of interests between us and people who use our services. I’m often asked if we have an incentive to increase engagement on Facebook because that creates more advertising real estate, even if it’s not in people’s best interests.

We’re very focused on helping people share and connect more, because the purpose of our service is to help people stay in touch with family, friends and communities. But from a business perspective, it’s important that their time is well spent, or they won’t use our services as much over the long term. Clickbait and other junk may drive engagement in the near term, but it would be foolish for us to show this intentionally, because it’s not what people want.

Another question is whether we leave harmful or divisive content up because it drives engagement. We don’t. People consistently tell us they don’t want to see this content. Advertisers don’t want their brands anywhere near it. The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect—not because we have an incentive to ignore it. Our systems are still evolving and improving…

…In a global survey, half the businesses on Facebook say they’ve hired more people since they joined. They’re using our services to create millions of jobs.

For us, technology has always been about putting power in the hands of as many people as possible. If you believe in a world where everyone gets an opportunity to use their voice and an equal chance to be heard, where anyone can start a business from scratch, then it’s important to build technology that serves everyone.


Essentially setting Facebook up as a competitor to Google in that regard. (That “hired more” syllogism is awful. Causality?) The subtext here: don’t regulate Facebook’s ad business, or Facebook, because the effects would go far beyond Facebook.
link to this extract

Zuckerberg plans to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger • The New York Times

Mike Isaac:


Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, plans to integrate the social network’s messaging services — WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger — asserting his control over the company’s sprawling divisions at a time when its business has been battered by scandal.

The services will continue to operate as stand-alone apps, but their underlying technical infrastructure will be unified, said four people involved in the effort. That will bring together three of the world’s largest messaging networks, which between them have more than 2.6 billion users, allowing people to communicate across the platforms for the first time.

The move has the potential to redefine how billions of people use the apps to connect with one another while strengthening Facebook’s grip on users, raising antitrust, privacy and security questions. It also underscores how Mr. Zuckerberg is imposing his authority over units he once vowed to leave alone.

The plan — which is in the early stages, with a goal of completion by the end of this year or early 2020 — requires thousands of Facebook employees to reconfigure how WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger function at their most basic levels, said the people involved in the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.


There’s a lot of murmuring now among European politicians who dislike Facebook that this would be grounds to revisit Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, on the basis that it said this wouldn’t happen.
link to this extract

Continuing our work to improve recommendations on YouTube • Official YouTube Blog

“The YouTube Team”:


in the last year alone, we’ve made hundreds of changes to improve the quality of recommendations for users on YouTube.

We’ll continue that work this year, including taking a closer look at how we can reduce the spread of content that comes close to—but doesn’t quite cross the line of—violating our Community Guidelines. To that end, we’ll begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.

While this shift will apply to less than one% of the content on YouTube, we believe that limiting the recommendation of these types of videos will mean a better experience for the YouTube community. To be clear, this will only affect recommendations of what videos to watch, not whether a video is available on YouTube. As always, people can still access all videos that comply with our Community Guidelines and, when relevant, these videos may appear in recommendations for channel subscribers and in search results. We think this change strikes a balance between maintaining a platform for free speech and living up to our responsibility to users.

This change relies on a combination of machine learning and real people. We work with human evaluators and experts from all over the United States to help train the machine learning systems that generate recommendations.


Notice how no product manager is taking responsibility for this; it’s “the team”. And that machine learning isn’t good enough yet to discern the nonsense from the sensible. For context: it’s still broken, as this tweet shows.
link to this extract

4chan trolls flood laid off HuffPost, BuzzFeed reporters with death threats • NBC News

Ben Collins:


[Nick] Wing was one of many journalists who were let go by BuzzFeed and HuffPost this week and were sent death threats from trolls organizing their efforts on the far-right message board 4chan. Many of those targeted by the harassment campaign did not cover the far-right, including Wing, whose beat focused on inequality and guns.

“It really is upsetting to see such outright animus toward the entire journalism profession, to the point where trolls are openly reveling in people’s misfortune or even working to make it worse. But ultimately I think it says more about their character than anything,” Wing told NBC News.

“What sort of sad and pathetic human being do you have to be to do that?”

Tweets sent from trolls to Wing that included everything from threats to racial slurs to images of swastikas remained visible on Twitter hours after they were posted.

BuzzFeed and HuffPost both laid off substantial portions of its newsrooms this week. BuzzFeed said it would cut about 15% of its workforce, and layoffs began Friday. HuffPost’s parent company, Verizon, promised to cut 7% of workers from its media division, and those layoffs began Thursday.

Talia Lavin, a freelance writer whose primary income was a political column for HuffPost before her editors were laid off this week, found 4chan threads with users bragging about “taunting them with my sock puppet Twitter.”


As someone pointed out in discussion, seeing a not-very-active account suddenly come to life and then suddenly get a lot of blocks should trigger some sort of suspension. (You don’t want to suspend normally-active accounts which get a lot of blocks; that would be used as a weapon against innocent people.) Also: notice how 4chan has become “far-right” 4chan.
link to this extract

Apple granted patent for interchangeable ‘universal’ AirPods with biometrics and improved fit • 9to5Mac

Alex Allegro:


This patent filing comes just days after a new Ming-Chi Kuo report which signaled for updated AirPods in the first quarter of 2019 set to include wireless charging. It seems clear the next AirPods refresh will most likely focus on improving upon the current design. But this patent shows that in 2020 and beyond, Apple is interested in creating an ultimate earbud that can fit anybody, with an array of biometric sensors capable of tracking health measurements along with detecting ear placement.

One of the points touched upon in the patent is how biometric sensors need to be pressed firmly against the skin to work best, and in a few of the designs outlined in the document, foam is used to expand the bud against the ear canal.

Obviously, this is a departure from the traditional plastic mold used by Apple in both EarPods and AirPods. However, in the pursuit of a universal fit, Apple might deem expanding foam as the best option as opposed to hard plastic.


Foam would be a nice feature. AirPods aren’t uncomfortable, but they’re too big for some ears. There has been some indication that the new versions will come after iOS 12.2 – currently in beta – is official.
link to this extract

Living on bitcoin day 1: “that’s not going to work” • Bitcoin Magazine

Colin Harper:


The crypto community in 2013 was devout but scant, and so were the places [journalist Kashmir] Hill could spend bitcoin [when she tried to live on it for a week]. Her entire experience was punctuated by a sense of getting by. This is best encapsulated by the final line of her 2013 series: “I survived.”

I compared notes with her about what I foresaw as being my biggest obstacles for the week, making mental notes to see if I could do more than “survive” and if 2013 might have actually been an easier year for the experiment.

As our conversation came to a close, Hill left me with a nugget of advice that I’d adopted as a mantra for my own iteration of the experiment.

“Don’t make the focus about yourself. Make it about other people, who the experiment allows you to access.”

Leaving La Boulangerie, I took an Uber back to the conference venue, where I made arrangements with Jeremy Gardner to visit a new project he’s working on and, of course, tour the infamous Crypto Castle.

We had a tight time frame; he was leaving for Park City, Utah, that night to go snowboarding.

“You can come by the castle tonight. Or later in the week, someone will let you in, show you around — I don’t care.”

We eventually settle on a 4:00 p.m. meeting outside of Monarch, a popular club wedged between San Francisco’s Mid Market and Tenderloin districts that accepts bitcoin by-the-bottle. It’s within walking distance of the conference which is good because my Uber credit was running low and the conference didn’t have any Wi-Fi for me to get on Paxful/Bitrefill to top it off.

The rest of the early afternoon was spent prepping for and moderating a panel, after which I scrambled around, looking for a USB-C charger to juice my phone and keep my financial lifeline alive (I had lost my charger that morning, of course). The conference tech staff was nice enough to lend me a charger, one of many acts of good will that seems to continually grace my experience.

When the time rolls around, Jeremy meets me with one of his business partners, Micah, who owns Monarch and another bitcoin accepting club in San Francisco, Great Northern. We hop one building over to their new project: a pawn shop that serves as the front for a speakeasy, both of which will accept bitcoin.

The shop had been a pawn for a while, Gardner said, buying, trading, selling and even offering loans and collateral for years before it shut down.

“All the snakey stuff,” he intimated.


If you needed persuading that bitcoin really isn’t for day-to-day transactions.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.990: the coming Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp integration, Japan’s here to hack!, living on bitcoin, and more

  1. re Youtube recommendations. Eyeballing it, I’m getting 20% anti-vax, 10% antivax debunk, and the rest pro-vax when searching for that phrase while logged in. Recos after watching the first, pro-vax, vid, do indeed turn bad, with mostly anti-vax.

    I’m a bit unsure about what we want done though. Is Youtube (and social/feeds in general) a university or a neighbourhood café + family diner ? I don’t know if my extended family is especially bad, but what I’m getting on Youtube isn’t worse ( = intolerant, idiotic,…) than what I hear at diners and bars. Are we shooting the messenger, policing speech, treating the symptoms not the cause, …. ?

    I can’t help but think we need to find ways to discuss issues and to establish truth and consensus, not to find ways to ignore or silence dissent. I find that later iffy politically and socially, plus you don’ want truth to win by force, you want it to spread.

  2. re. Gov. hacking: if people would rather their systems remain vulnerable, or be hacked by nefarious entities, than by the gov as a test, we live in a weird world.
    John Oliver did a bit a while back about people being apathetic about privacy until you mentioned dick pics. Maybe what’s needed for people to wake up about privacy and security is the gov sending them scenes from their homes. Better than teens killing themselves because they got catfished.

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