Start Up No.1,002: the DNA test explosion, your smart light is chatting, more Apple Enterprise Cert problems, how to count to 1,000, and more


Your gut bacteria can affect how prone you are to depression. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

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

More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

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As many people purchased consumer DNA tests in 2018 as in all previous years combined, MIT Technology Review has found.

Surging public interest in ancestry and health—propelled by heavy TV and online marketing—was behind a record year for sales of the tests, which entice consumers to spit in a tube or swab their cheeks and ship the sample back to have their genomes analyzed.

By the start of 2019, more than 26 million consumers had added their DNA to four leading commercial ancestry and health databases, according to our estimates. If the pace continues, the gene troves could hold data on the genetic makeup of more than 100 million people within 24 months.

The testing frenzy is creating two superpowers—Ancestry of Lehi, Utah, and 23andMe of Menlo Park, California. These privately held companies now have the world’s largest collections of human DNA.

For consumers, the tests—which cost as little as $59—offer entertainment, clues to ancestry, and a chance of discovering family secrets, such as siblings you didn’t know about. But the consequences for privacy go well beyond that.

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Individually, people care about their privacy. Collectively, they don’t, or can’t.
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Publishers chafe at Apple’s terms for subscription news service • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin, Lukas Alpert and Tripp Mickle:

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Apple’s plan to create a subscription service for news is running into resistance from major publishers over the tech giant’s proposed financial terms, according to people familiar with the situation, complicating an initiative that is part of the company’s efforts to offset slowing iPhone sales.

In its pitch to some news organizations, the Cupertino, Calif., company has said it would keep about half of the subscription revenue from the service, the people said. The service, described by industry executives as a “Netflix for news,” would allow users to read an unlimited amount of content from participating publishers for a monthly fee. It is expected to launch later this year as a paid tier of the Apple News app, the people said.

The rest of the revenue would go into a pool that would be divided among publishers according to the amount of time users spend engaged with their articles, the people said. Representatives from Apple have told publishers that the subscription service could be priced at about $10 a month, similar to Apple’s streaming music service, but the final price could change, some of the people said.

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The story’s clearly coming from the news orgs, but they’re not very clear about what Apple’s offering and not offering. Doesn’t sound too attractive for them; they’d do better through the App Store (max 30% payout, then 15%), but even better getting the subscriptions directly. Hard to think why Apple thinks it has any leverage here; conversions are sure to be low from the News app, because there’s always another news source offered free. (Also: “offset slowing iPhone sales”? Please. The take on few million subscriptions would barely be a rounding error for any of Apple’s divisions.)
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Links between gut microbes and depression strengthened • Nature

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The authors used DNA sequencing to analyse microbiota in the faeces of more than 1,000 people enrolled in Belgium’s Flemish Gut Flora Project. The team then correlated different microbial taxa with the participants’ quality of life and incidence of depression, using self-reported and physician-supplied diagnoses. The researchers validated the findings in an independent cohort of 1,063 individuals in the Netherlands’ LifeLines DEEP project. Finally, they mined the data to generate a catalogue describing the microbiota’s capacity to produce or degrade molecules that can interact with the human nervous system.

The researchers found that two groups of bacteria, Coprococcus and Dialister, were reduced in people with depression. And they saw a positive correlation between quality of life and the potential ability of the gut microbiome to synthesize a breakdown product of the neurotransmitter dopamine, called 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid. The results are some of the strongest yet to show that a person’s microbiota can influence their mental health.

These are still correlations, not causes. Researchers know that the gut microbiota can produce or stimulate the production of neurotransmitters and neuroactive compounds, such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine, and that these compounds can modulate bacterial growth. The challenge now is to find out whether, and how, these microbe-derived molecules can interact with the human central nervous system, and whether that alters a person’s behaviour or risk of disease. At least now, answering these questions is a wise pursuit, not a wild one.

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We’re only just starting to understand our inner space. Our understanding of our microbiota (microbes in our gut and body) has only really begun this century.
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Uber releases Ludwig, an open source AI ‘toolbox’ built on top of TensorFlow • VentureBeat

Kyle Wiggers:

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Want to dive earnestly into artificial intelligence (AI) development, but find the programming piece of it intimidating? Not to worry — Uber has your back. The ride-hailing giant has debuted Ludwig, an open source “toolbox” built on top of Google’s TensorFlow framework that allows users to train and test AI models without having to write code.

Uber says Ludwig is the culmination of two years’ worth of work to streamline the deployment of AI systems in applied projects and says it has been tapping the tool suite internally for tasks like extracting information from driver licenses, identifying points of interest during conversations between driver-partners and riders, predicting food delivery times, and more.

“Ludwig is unique in its ability to help make deep learning easier to understand for non-experts and enable faster model improvement iteration cycles for experienced machine learning developers and researchers alike,” Uber wrote in a blog post. “By using Ludwig, experts and researchers can simplify the prototyping process and streamline data processing so that they can focus on developing deep learning architectures rather than data wrangling.”

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You have to want to dive earnestly, because it’s not just “here’s some pictures, this is what they are, off you go”.
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‘Link to the rest’: the 12-year journey to 1,000 days of @TheOverspill links • Medium

I wrote about this.. can I call it a journey?

»

When I first started at a national newspaper in 1995, the aim was to write one well-sourced and researched story in a day. This was entirely for print, in a world before people had dialup internet on their desk, let alone high-speed broadband in their pocket. (At least they had mobile phones. You have no idea how difficult it used to be to get hold of people before mobile phones.)

Within five years, everyone had broadband on their desk, and now there was a lot more information coming in, and a lot more places to look. One of the moments I recall was managing to find the patent filings for the Segway just a few minutes before the deadline for delivering the piece at 5pm, which could then be used to illustrate it. That was January 2001. (Weirdly, that piece isn’t on The Independent’s own site, but is on its Irish sibling paper’s.)

Then everyone had web sites, and there were web sites which simply pulled together lists of things that were on other web sites. Everything became connected.

That also meant that the number of stories you could potentially write in a day — check and research for yourself, write, publish — went up dramatically. From picking one story a day for print, suddenly you could write three per day, having picked from 10 potential ones, because the checking process was easier.

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Councils given new powers to block phone boxes being built • Daily Telegraph

Katie Morley:

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Councils will be able to block the building of new phone boxes following a landmark ruling from the High Court.

Westminster council was yesterday granted new powers to stop its pavements becoming swamped with hundreds of phone boxes, which it claims are being used for “nefarious purposes” like drug dealing and prostitution.

Until now installing phone boxes has not required planning permission, but now that will change giving council bosses the ability to stop them being built.

Judges agreed that phone boxes primary function is now not for people making phone calls, but companies beaming out adverts day and night.  

Westminster City Council cabinet member for place shaping and planning, Richard Beddoe said: “”Many phone boxes are in a state of disrepair and we suspect are being used for nefarious purposes. Most people haven’t used a phone box in the last twenty years. We don’t need them any more.”

«

So much for the BT/InLink plan, which was for sort-of internet phone boxes, which were instead used by drug dealers.

(I rewrote the intro/lede, which originally read: “New phone boxes will be blocked from being built by councils for first time, following a landmark ruling from the High Court.” The sentence is backward; it implies the councils build the phone boxes (they don’t, they give them permits), it’s passive (“will be blocked by”) rather than active (“councils can block”), and a landmark ruling implies it’s the first time, so that phrase is surplus.)
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💃😂✊: how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat everyone at Twitter in nine tweets • The Guardian

Max Benwell:

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When it comes to Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress last November, beats every other US politician hands, nose and elbows down. She has built one of the most engaged followings on Capitol Hill in just eight months and was even appointed to teach social media lessons to her colleagues upon her arrival.

How does she do it? I spend my days analyzing data for the Guardian and helping run our social media accounts, so I’m used to digging into numbers and figuring out what gets people going. And more often than not, it’s the less obvious things that reveal what’s really happening.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account (@AOC) has more than 3.1 million followers. It has gained more than 2.6 million of these in the last eight months. Before she won her primary in June, beating a powerful 10-term Democratic incumbent, she only had 446,000 followers.

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“Only”? That’s an amazing number. But as this piece goes on to point out, in this medium she’s like a fish swimming in water and makes everyone else look like a lumbering landlubber. It actually helps that her policies aren’t centrist, because the (often faux) outrage about them travels far faster and wider than dull tweaked-version-of-previous policies.
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Your smart light can tell Amazon and Google when you go to bed • Bloomberg

Matt Day:

»

For several years, Amazon and Google have collected data every time someone used a smart speaker to turn on a light or lock a door. Now they’re asking smart-home gadget makers such as Logitech and Hunter Fan Co. to send a continuous stream of information.

In other words, after you connect a light fixture to Alexa, Amazon wants to know every time the light is turned on or off, regardless of whether you asked Alexa to toggle the switch. Televisions must report the channel they’re set to. Smart locks must keep the company apprised whether or not the front door bolt is engaged.

This information may seem mundane compared with smartphone geolocation software that follows you around or the trove of personal data Facebook Inc. vacuums up based on your activity. But even gadgets as simple as light bulbs could enable tech companies to fill in blanks about their customers and use the data for marketing purposes. Having already amassed a digital record of activity in public spaces, critics say, tech companies are now bent on establishing a beachhead in the home.

“You can learn the behaviors of a household based on their patterns,” says Brad Russell, who tracks smart home products for researcher Parks Associates Inc. “One of the most foundational things is occupancy. There’s a lot they could do with that.”

Some device makers are pushing back, saying automatic device updates don’t give users enough control over what data they share, or how it can be used. Public guidelines published by Amazon and Google don’t appear to set limits on what the companies can do with the information they glean about how people use appliances.

Amazon and Google say they collect the data to make it easier for people to manage their home electronics…

…When smart speakers first hit the market, using them to command another device worked like this. After receiving the command “Alexa, turn on the light,” the software would ask the light bulb maker’s servers for the current status of the bulb. After a reply came back confirming the switch was off, Alexa would instruct the light to turn on.

Now, in a push that accelerated last year, Amazon and Google are recommending—and, in some cases, requiring—that smart home makers tweak their code to reverse that relationship. Instead, the light bulb must report in to the hub with its status at all times.

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That could quickly get messy if your home has lots of devices, and it feels eminently hackable. Also: were you wondering why Amazon might want to buy a company that routes all your home data? Now you know.
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Apple fails to block porn and gambling “enterprise” apps • Techcrunch

Josh Constine:

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Developers simply have to fill out an online form and pay $299 to Apple, as detailed in this guide from Calvium. The form merely asks developers to pledge they’re building an Enterprise Certificate app for internal employee-only use, that they have the legal authority to register the business, provide a D-U-N-S business ID number, and have an up to date Mac. You can easily Google a business’ address details and look up their D-U-N-S ID number with a tool Apple provides. After setting up an Apple ID and agreeing to its terms of service, businesses wait one to four weeks for a phone call from Apple asking them to reconfirm they’ll only distribute apps internally and are authorized to represent their business.

With just a few lies on the phone and web plus some Googleable public information, sketchy developers can get approved for an Apple Enterprise Certificate.

Given the number of policy-violating apps that are being distributed to non-employees using registrations for businesses unrelated to their apps, it’s clear that Apple needs to tighten the oversight on the Enterprise Certificate program. TechCrunch found thousands of sites offering downloads of “sideloaded” Enterprise apps, and investigating just a sample uncovered numerous abuses.  Using a standard un-jailbroken iPhone. TechCrunch was able to download and verify 12 pornography and 12 real-money gambling apps over the past week that were abusing Apple’s Enterprise Certificate system to offer apps prohibited from the App Store. These apps either offered streaming or pay-per-view hardcore pornography, or allowed users to deposit, win, and withdraw real money — all of which would be prohibited if the apps were distributed through the App Store.

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Terrific journalism. Apple suddenly finds it has an Augean stable.
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Announcing Extra Crunch • Techcrunch

Matthew Panzarino,
Danny Crichton and
Eric Eldon:

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I won’t bury the lede. TechCrunch is launching a subscription product called, appropriately and deliciously, Extra Crunch.

Extra Crunch, as it says on the tin, is an additional layer of content, coverage, product and events-based offerings for our most regular and engaged readers. This will consist of articles that go more in-depth on topics in the entrepreneurship and startup universe, of course.

In addition to cutting closer to the bone on the topics we already cover on a daily basis, we’ll be tackling a lot of the practical nuts and bolts issues that confront founders, entrepreneurs, analysts and tech workers — from issues like inclusion and diversity to navigating hiring, legal and product decisions to mental health and wellness in high-performance environments. We want to gather the expertise and knowledge of the founders that have come before and those that are in the thick of it now.

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$15 per month or $150 per year. (So a 17% discount if you buy annually.) The challenge is always going to be: how do you decide what to put inside the pay perimeter, and what outside? That juicy news story – shouldn’t it be inside, so people pony up to read? Or outside, to get traffic and maybe get business at the margin?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,002: the DNA test explosion, your smart light is chatting, more Apple Enterprise Cert problems, how to count to 1,000, and more

  1. Honest question: is there any chance Apple knew about entrerprise certificates abuse but was looking the other way ?

    Rationale for it being a possibility
    1- it serves a users’ needs (for gift cards, porn and gambling).
    2- nobody gets hurt really. Users know a VPN will track them (especially since they advertise it’s the goal and pay them for it), gambling will ruin them… Apps apparently haven’t been malicious outside their official purpose.
    3- Apple’s reaction has been very muted, a 1-day ban isn’t anything really. (We’ll see if Apple’s justice is blind or if less powerful infringers get a bigger sentence).
    4- I find it hard to believe no Apple employee ever, or concerned customer, noticed and reported they could install porn and gambling apps
    5- I find it hard to believe Apple didn’t spot some weird Entreprise certificate usage.

    IMHO, the situation is similar to Google allowing Play Services and gApps to be installed on hacked/China-Android phones. Theoretically disallowed, good for everyone in practice (users get what they want, Google gets more gApps users, Apple doesn’t lose gambling or porn addicts). Google only flexed its muscles when Cyanogen wanted to break App compatibility via resizable windows, Apple seems to be only flexing its muscle once the PR train gets started.

  2. re. Smart things: strangely, Google is cutting back Android Things to only smart displays and speakers, not other IoT. I’m carefully avoiding that market since I don’t want my things to stop working when my ADSL or someone’s server is down, but I wonder what OS/ecosystem those IoT things are supposed to run on.

  3. re. Extra Crunch: I think the future of apps and websites is subscriptions, just like it is for music, videos, and books. Not per-service/publication/artist, but an umbrella sub that covers most sources of content, just like Netflix and Pandora.

    I’m, as always, disappointed in Google for not taking the lead, but hopefully once Apple starts up the machine with game subs (or news subs, apparently), I’m sure Google will follow. I’m surprised it’s taking this long.

  4. Congratulations on 1000+, Charles. Though the Medium article was good history, I wished you had devoted a bit more space to the personal side of the economics, i.e. what return you get for the work involved. The idea of “You just do it because it’s worth doing.”, while very laudable, can’t go far in _general_ given the time and effort involved in this sort of task. To be clear, there’s plenty of room in the world for labors of love. But that doesn’t buy food or pay rent (or, in the US, health insurance).

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