Start Up No.1,009: how Kodak discovered atomic tests, when kids search for themselves, who’ll splash out on phones?, AT&T dumps YouTube in paedo row, and more


“Are you going to the Fortnite Live festival there, Father Ted?” CC-licensed photo by Insomnia Cured Here on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Untested on Kodak. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

When kids Google themselves • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:

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Allie was in fourth grade the first time she Googled herself. Like Ellen, she wasn’t expecting to find anything, since she doesn’t yet have her own social-media accounts. Google turned up just a few photos, but she was shocked that there was anything at all. She immediately became hyperaware of the image her mother was building for her on Instagram and Facebook. “My parents have always posted about me,” she said. “I was basically fine with it … then I realized I was making an impression and I was an actual person online too, through her page.”

Not all kids react poorly to finding out they’ve been living an unwitting life online. Some are thrilled. In fourth grade, Nate searched his name and discovered that he was mentioned in a news article about his third-grade class making a giant burrito. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I was surprised, really surprised.” But he was pleased with his newfound clout. “It made me feel famous … I got to make new friends by saying, ‘Oh, I’m in a newspaper [online],’” he said. Ever since, he has Googled himself every few months, hoping to find things.

Natalie, now 13, said that in fifth grade she and her friends competed with one another over the amount of information about themselves on the internet. “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online,” she said. “We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

Natalie’s parents are stringent about not posting photos of her to social media, so there are only a handful of photos of her out there, but she yearns for more. “I don’t want to live in a hole and only have two pics of me online. I want to be a person who is a person. I want people to know who I am,” she said.

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We all want to be someone, don’t we? And this is the first way that children discover that they are, to other people – maybe to the people they want to impress, which is their peers. Comes with a word I hadn’t seen before: “sharenting” (parents who share too much).
link to this extract


Lessons from 6 software rewrite stories • Medium

Herb Caudill:

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Almost two decades ago, Joel Spolsky excoriated Netscape for rewriting their codebase in his landmark essay Things You Should Never Do.
He concluded that a functioning application should never, ever be rewritten from the ground up. His argument turned on two points:
• The crufty-looking parts of the application’s codebase often embed hard-earned knowledge about corner cases and weird bugs.
• A rewrite is a lengthy undertaking that keeps you from improving on your existing product, during which time the competition is gaining on you.

For many, Joel’s conclusion became an article of faith; I know it had a big effect on my thinking at the time. In the following years, I read a few contrarian takes arguing that, under certain circumstances, it made a lot of sense to rewrite from scratch. For example:
• Sometimes the legacy codebase really is messed up beyond repair, such that even simple changes require a cascade of changes to other parts of the code.
• The original technology choices might be preventing you from making necessary improvements.
• Or, the original technology might be obsolete, making it hard (or expensive) to recruit quality developers.

The correct answer, of course, is that it depends a lot on the circumstances. Yes, sometimes it makes more sense to gradually refactor your legacy code. And yes, sometimes it makes sense to throw it all out and start over.

But those aren’t the only choices. Let’s take a quick look at six stories, and see what lessons we can draw.

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Netscape, Basecamp, Visual Studio, Gmail/Inbox, Fogbugz/Trello, FreshBooks/BillSpring. In depth, fascinating.
link to this extract


People don’t want to pay big bucks for a new smartphone • ZDNet

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes:

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The survey of 1,303 smartphone buyers in the US, carried out earlier this month for USA Today by SurveyMonkey, makes hard reading for companies who expect buyers to drop a thousand dollars on a smartphone, because it seems that the majority of the market belongs to the sub-$500 smartphone.

Here’s the breakdown

Sub-$300: 30%
$300 to $500: 26%$501 to $750: 25%
$751 to $1,000: 16%
More than $1,000: 3%

For comparison, a 64GB iPhone XR is $749, while a full-spec 512GB iPhone XS Max is a whopping $1,449. This means that the entirety of Apple’s new iPhone line is at the upper end of what people are willing to pay, with the high-end devices existing at the very thinnest end of the wedge.

And it’s the sort of price that most people would balk at when it comes to buying far bigger gadgets such as desktops and laptops.

Apple’s cheapest iPhone currently on sale is the 32GB iPhone 7, which retails for $449. While this seems like a reasonable deal – especially when you consider that Apple’s priciest iPhone is $1,449 – it’s a lot of money for old hardware. It even raises the question of whether Apple could use a budget $300 iPhone designed from the ground-up to be cheap yet functional. 

That would certainly allow Apple the chance to go after a much bigger market share.

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In the words of Gregory House, MD, “everybody lies”. Especially about what they’re prepared to pay for a new smartphone. Though that $750+ group is nearly one-fifth of the whole market. And if you’re looking just at revenue, 44% of the total is in the $750-1,000 space; just 9% in the sub-$300 space. You need revenue to make profit, given fixed overheads.
link to this extract


The vanishing flights of the monarch butterfly • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern:

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[Emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Chip] Taylor has a one-word explanation for why 2018 was an especially good year for eastern monarchs, and why that good year likely portends bad ones to come: temperature. In March, when the monarchs arrived in Texas from Mexico, the mean temperatures were 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, which should have blown the butterflies all the way to Kansas. The butterflies couldn’t go farther north, though, because it was too cold in northern Texas. “I looked at the weather every day and I’d say, ‘damn, that’s good. Keep your babies in Texas,’” Taylor said. In May, the temperatures were optimal as the butterflies moved north, and they were ideal in the summer as monarchs spread out across their breeding range. Then, in the fall, as the butterflies headed south, those numbers were favorable, too. “What we had this year is everything was positive in every one of those stages,” Taylor told me. “This is why I say this is not likely to happen again—because you’re not likely to see a pattern like this again.”

West of the Rockies, the number of monarchs overwintering in California is estimated to be around twenty thousand, down 86% since last year, which “isn’t completely unprecedented,” Emma Pelton, a researcher with the Xerces Society, told me. “I’ve looked back at data between 1980 and today, and there have been other instances where we’ve had a single-year drop of this magnitude. But the difference is that this is all in the context of a 97% decline since the 1980s.” The current situation, Pelton added, is considered “a quasi-extinction.” There may not be enough butterflies to repopulate the range. If that happens, there will still be western monarchs, but they will be increasingly hard to find. “That would be like losing all the rhinos, except the rhinos in the zoos,” Pelton said. “Really, the threat is that we’re going to lose migration.”

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So even when it’s good, the news is bad.
link to this extract


AT&T pulls all ads from YouTube amid pedophilia controversy • CNBC

Todd Haselton and Sara Salinas:

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“Until Google can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube,” an AT&T spokesperson told CNBC. The company originally pulled its entire ad spend from YouTube in 2017 after revelations that its ads were appearing alongside offensive content, including terrorist content, but resumed advertising in January.

On Wednesday, Nestle and “Fortnite” maker Epic Games pulled some advertising. Disney reportedly also paused its ads.

There’s no evidence that AT&T ads ran before any of the videos brought into question by recent reports. Advertisers such as Grammarly and Peloton, which did see their ads placed alongside the videos, told CNBC they were in conversations with YouTube to resolve the issue.

YouTube declined to comment on any specific advertisers, but said in a statement on Wednesday, “Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube. We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling violative comments.”

Also on Thursday, AdWeek obtained a memo YouTube sent to advertisers that outlines immediate changes YouTube says it’s making in an effort to protect its younger audience.

YouTube said it is suspending comments on millions of videos that “could be subject to predatory comments.”

«

Peloton and Grammarly seem to be a bit lacklustre about something that is a serious breach of ethics. YouTube enables this stuff. Its algorithms make it easier because, as Ben Thompson pointed out, none of the people doing this is going to report it – so self-reporting fails.
link to this extract


Citymapper just announced a subscription service for London’s muddled transport network • WIRED UK

Nicole Kobie:

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Citymapper already plots a range of routes in its journey planning app, and soon it’ll let you pay for it all under one subscription. It’s the start of mobility as a service, or at least that’s the company’s ambition. “The idea is to make public transport effortless. The way our app makes it easy to plan, we want to make it easy to pay,” says CEO and founder Azmat Yusuf. “We’re trying to create a vision of this future where mobility is something where, as a user, you care about getting from point A to point B. We want to make it so it’s a bit like a utility, you can access whatever comes along.”

That’s the long-term plan, though the initial packages are rather more limited. From launch, there will be two subscriptions. The first, at about £30 (prices may still be subject to final tweaking), will give Citymapper Pass subscribers full access to zones one and two of Transport for London’s network for a week. For £40, they’ll get the same, plus unlimited rides on TfL’s Santander docked bike shares as well as two journeys on Citymapper’s Ride, its cab-sharing system similar to Uber Pool.

Why sign up? To start, it’s cheaper. The first offer is a £5.10 discount on TfL’s own weekly price for zones one and two. For the second, two trips in Citymapper Ride are worth about £10, while Santander bikes cost £2 a day. Citymapper suggested bulk buying helped keep prices down, and the fares are similar to those offered by group-buying scheme Commuter Club; unlike that system, subscribers will be charged weekly and not be locked in. “It’ll be easy to sign up, easy to pause, easy to cancel,” says Yusuf.

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“Muddled transport network”? In what way is the London transport network muddled? If you buy an Oyster card, you can use any part of it. Citymapper is going to pay TfL the full fare, so it’s bearing the losses here. This is screwy. Anyone can sell pounds for 90p.
link to this extract


Norwich’s Fortnite Live festival was a complete disaster • Eurogamer.net

Tom Phillips:

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A festival designed to recreate Fortnite on the outskirts of Norwich has, somewhat predictably, not lived up to expectations.

Event organisers flogged 2500 tickets to kids and parents. Entry cost upwards of £12 and unlimited access wristbands a further £20.

In return, families got what amounted to a few fairground attractions. Photos from the event show a climbing wall for three people, archery for four people, and four go-karts.

An attraction dubbed a “cave experience” was a lorry trailer with tarpaulin over it.

An indoors area where you could play actual Fortnite was probably the best thing there – although it cost money to access and you had to queue to do so. So much for free-to-play.

And all of that was if you could actually get into the event to start with. Hundreds of people were left queuing for hours due to staff shortages.

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A tarpaulin over a lorry trailer 😂😂. This is one of those stories which is a delight to research as a journalist, because it keeps turning up people at their absolute bumbling worst. Norwich, as an area, is also famous for its vague efforts to make money by promising far too much from a few lorries in a field.

Unsurprisingly, Epic Games sued since its mark was being used without permission, and the company behind it (“Exciting Events” 😂) has liquidated itself.

As someone commented on Twitter, it was like the episode of Father Ted when the funfair comes to Craggy Island.

link to this extract


A philosopher argues: AI can’t be an artist • MIT Technology Review

Sean Dorrance Kelly, who is a philosophy professor at Harvard:

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Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence. To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.

This claim is not absolute: it depends on the norms that we allow to govern our culture and our expectations of technology. Human beings have, in the past, attributed great power and genius even to lifeless totems. It is entirely possible that we will come to treat artificially intelligent machines as so vastly superior to us that we will naturally attribute creativity to them. Should that happen, it will not be because machines have outstripped us. It will be because we will have denigrated ourselves…

…my argument is not that the creator’s responsiveness to social necessity must be conscious for the work to meet the standards of genius. I am arguing instead that we must be able to interpret the work as responding that way. It would be a mistake to interpret a machine’s composition as part of such a vision of the world. The argument for this is simple.

Claims like Kurzweil’s that machines can reach human-level intelligence assume that to have a human mind is just to have a human brain that follows some set of computational algorithms—a view called computationalism. But though algorithms can have moral implications, they are not themselves moral agents. We can’t count the monkey at a typewriter who accidentally types out Othello as a great creative playwright. If there is greatness in the product, it is only an accident.

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Your long read for today. May require registration.
link to this extract


When Kodak accidentally discovered A-bomb testing • Popular Mechanics

Matt Blitz:

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It all started when Kodak had a problem with its packaging. Even today, X-ray film is highly sensitive (much more so than regular photographic film) and subject to ruin due to dirt, scratches and even minimal light exposure. Proper packaging and protection is essential to make sure the film gets from manufacturing to shipping to the customer’s place of business safely. According to an article Webb would write in 1949 for the American Physical Society, the paper and cardboard used for packaging in the ’40s were often salvaged from wartime manufacturing plants where radium-based instruments were also produced. Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that can cause flecks of spots or fogging when “in intimate contact with (sensitive film) for a period several weeks.” During wartime, Kodak took precautions to avoid radium contamination. It moved packaging manufacturing to mills where Kodak had full control over the raw materials.

One of these mills was located along the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana; it specialized in producing strawboard, used as a stiffener board between sheets of film. When Webb investigated the mysterious fogging in 1945, he found that it originated not from the X-ray film itself but the packaging, which he tracked to this particular mill, and specifically, the production run of strawboard from August 6, 1945. After testing the radioactive material on the strawboard, he discovered—rather alarmingly—that the spots on the film were not caused by radium nor any other naturally occurring radioactive material, but “a new type radioactive containment not hitherto encountered.” What was this unknown radioactive material, he must have wondered, and what was it doing in southwest Indiana?

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This is a wonderful detective story; one wonders whether we could have an equivalent today, in which an innocuous everyday product is a telltale for a huge government project (albeit one that produced a gigantic fireball visible for 250 miles).
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,009: how Kodak discovered atomic tests, when kids search for themselves, who’ll splash out on phones?, AT&T dumps YouTube in paedo row, and more

  1. Re. Expensive phones. The puzzling thing is that media coverage is mostly about that 20% of expensive phones. We did manage to get LesNumeriques in France to name the Redmi Note phone of the year, but it took major elitist guilt-tripping, and a midrange-focused OEM.

    Publications, writers and OEMs have too much incentive to warp coverage.

  2. Best no-jargon explainer on how Meltdown and Spectre actually work, and, bad news, Google found a new one and says software can’t solve the problem: arstechnica.com/gadgets/2019/02/google-software-is-never-going-to-be-able-to-fix-spectre-type-bugs/

    I’ve put my PC upgrades on hold until an in-silicon fix, not my mobile upgrade though in spite of ARM being vulnerable as well (so…my NAS, my router, and my cable box too – shudders). The fix is a long time coming, and then we’ll need to get all new devices. I understand chip design+test cycles are 4-5yrs, but this seems to be a “stop the fabs”-level issue. And if they can’t fix Speculative Execution to not leak data, or if they need to slow it down a lot, there will be long-term, across-the-board performance consequences. IIRC, today’s imperfect software mitigation takes a toll of up to 30%, typically 10-20%.

    I’m mostly unbothered by Android having some vulns because of the update issues since in practice the vulns get neutered by not being an idiot, not sideloading, an offbeat browser with addons, Google’s Play Secure… But hardware-based, universal, possible entirely remote+unattended vulns frighten me, a bit at my individual level but mostly at the infrastructure level: what will Putin do if/when he can shut down or hijack our telecoms, banking, industrial, military… networks ?

  3. For some reason, to me, Huawei’s foldable phone looks a lot sexier than Samsung’s.
    gsmarena.com/huawei_mate_x_arrives_with_foldable_screen_and_55w_supercharge-news-35673.php
    Probably because it folds flat and the screen in folded mode is nice and large, as opposed to Samsung’s unsightly imperfect wedge and piddly dedicated exterior screen. Also, Huawei’s love handle harks back the Lenovo’s Android Yoga Tab, a design I loved for sedentary tablets because built-in stand, big sound, big battery, easy grip, and easy-to-find buttons and connectors.

    Same squarish aspect ratio and small (for a tablet) unfolded size, so I’m still unsure what the device really is good for in the consumer space. Also not sure how durable the Huawei will be: foldable phones are not case-friendy, and this one wears its screen on the outside.

    Huawei seems to have more design mojo than Samsung for some reason. Samsung will do ugly dysfunctional stuff such as the S and Note’s rounded bezels, I don’t think Huawei ever committed to such an abomination. I think Xiaomi still beats both though, with both quicker uptake of mainstream fashion even at the very low end, and more energetic divergence in the Mi Mix line. They’ve put out a demo of a foldable prototype a month ago, but the dual hinge when one would achieve the same result seems illogical.
    theverge.com/2019/1/23/18194065/xiaomi-foldable-phone-tablet-device-teaser

    • … and LG’s “just put a second screen in the phone case’s flap” seems vastly more realistic for now.
      theverge.com/2019/2/24/18238437/lg-v50-dual-screen-second-display-mwc-2019
      just run 2 apps side by side, or get a nice big keyboard/gamepad. Certainly lots cheaper too, and more fixable.

      Hopefully LG will get some sales, they’ve been doing things Mostly Right forever, only to win the “best very-discounted failed flagship” prize over and over again. I sold quite a few of them ;-p

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