Start Up No.1,014: the Momo urban legend, how scooters die, plastic plumbs the depths, Bollywood’s silver lining in a mushroom cloud, and more

A collector’s item: Amazon’s decided the Dash is over. CC-licensed photo by Forsaken Fotos on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Sorry, dinner’s off. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon stops selling Dash buttons, goofy forerunners of the connected home • CNet

Ben Fox Rubin:


Amazon has come up with some pretty odd ideas over the years: delivery inside your car, a talking tablet for your kitchen counter, and even an action series starring that guy from The Office.

One of the concepts that best captures the quirky imagination of the world’s largest online retailer is the Dash button, a handy (and kind of ridiculous) device you press to reorder stuff like dog food, bottled water or septic treatment powder.

But the usefulness and novelty of Dash buttons has waned over the years, and Amazon said Thursday that it had decided to stop selling the gadgets globally. If you still proudly use a Dash button (or a few dozen), don’t worry: Amazon plans to continue supporting new orders through existing Dash buttons so long as the public keeps using them…

…So what killed the Dash button’s future? Well, by Amazon’s telling, the device was a victim of its own success, since it helped nudge forward the concept of the connected home to what it is today.

Daniel Rausch, an Amazon vice president who helped grow the Dash program from its start, said that back in early 2015, when the Dash button first came out, there were far fewer options for connected home gadgets. Amazon workers were trying to figure out a way “to make shopping disappear” for grocery list items like paper towels and printer ink and whatever else is pretty not-fun to go out and buy, Rausch said.


Yeeaaah nope. Always a bad idea because it fragmented the way that we think of product shopping, which is to put items onto a list as we need them (so “[assistant], add washing powder to the shopping list” works), not to order them as we think of the need. Some habits don’t change. Also: “goofy forerunners”? 2015 isn’t early for connected home stuff.
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Viral ‘Momo challenge’ is a malicious hoax, say charities • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:


Warnings about the supposed Momo challenge suggest that children are being encouraged to kill themselves or commit violent acts after receiving messages on messaging service WhatsApp from users with a profile picture of a distorted image of woman with bulging eyes.

News stories about the Momo challenge have also attracted hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook in a 24-hour period, dominating the list of UK news stories ranked by number of interactions on the social network.

There have also been claims that the material has appeared in a video featuring Peppa Pig among YouTube’s content aimed at children.

But the Samaritans and the NSPCC have dismissed the claims, saying that while there is no evidence that the Momo challenge has initially caused any harm itself, the ensuing media hysteria could now be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm.

The UK Safer Internet Centre called the claims “fake news”. And YouTube said it had seen no evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on its platform.

The NSPCC said there is no confirmed evidence that the phenomenon is actually posing a threat to British children and said they have received more phone calls about it from members of the media than concerned parents.


It’s the sort of thing that the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban would have devoured in days gone past. It’s a classic urban legend: “appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in varying forms; contains elements of humour or horror (the horror often “punishes” someone who flouts society’s conventions); makes good storytelling; does NOT have to be false, although most are.” Tick, tick, tick, tick.
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Shared scooters don’t last long • Oversharing

Alison Griswold:


Ok. So, our scooter company walks away with $2.32 in revenue per day from the average scooter in Louisville. As we said at the beginning, Louisville data indicates that the average scooter was around for between 28 and 32 days. That means the typical scooter generated something like $65 to $75 in revenue for the company after most operating costs over its lifetime.

You see where I’m going with this. Let’s be generous and say the company paid $360 for each scooter, as Bird aims to. At the rates calculated above, that company only recoups $65 to $75 on the cost of each scooter—in other words, it loses $295 to $285 per scooter. That doesn’t even include the $50 annual fee per dockless vehicle, the $3,000 in combined licensing fees, or the $100 fee for each designated parking area. Plug in the $551 sticker price for a scooter, and the losses are even greater.

Bad as these numbers are, they maybe shouldn’t be surprising. The electric scooters Bird deployed for shared commercial use, at least initially, were rebranded Xiaomi devices intended for use by a single owner with a weight limit of 200 pounds [90.7kg]. The average American man weighs 197.9 pounds [89.8kg] and the average woman 170.6 lbs [77.4kg]. These scooters were also designed to be used in mild weather and on flat surfaces. They were absolutely not designed to be ridden multiple times a day in all kinds of weather and on all kinds of terrain by Americans who, on average, are barely under the scooter weight limit before you adjust for clothes and any baggage (physical, not emotional) they might be carrying.


Is this really what disruption is meant to look like? Pouring money into things that aren’t profitable?
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In the deepest ocean trenches, animals eat plastic • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:


For the past decade, Jamieson, a marine biologist at Newcastle University, has been sending vehicles to the bottom of marine trenches, which can be as deep as the Himalayas are tall. Once there, these landers have collected amphipods—scavenger relatives of crabs and shrimp that thrive in the abyss. Jamieson originally wanted to know how these animals differ from one distant trench to another. But a few years ago, almost on a whim, he decided to analyze their body for toxic, human-made pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned for decades but which persist in nature for much longer.

The team found PCBs galore. Some amphipods were carrying levels 50 times higher than those seen in crabs from one of China’s most polluted rivers. When the news broke, Jamieson was inundated with calls from journalists and concerned citizens. And in every discussion, one question kept coming up: what about plastics?

The world produces an estimated 10 tons of plastic a second, and between 5 million and 14 million tons sweep into the oceans every year. Some of that debris washes up on beaches, even on the world’s most isolated islands. About 5 trillion pieces currently float in surface waters, mostly in the form of tiny, easy-to-swallow fragments that have ended up in the gut of albatrosses, sea turtles, plankton, fish, and whales. But those pieces also sink, snowing into the deep sea and upon the amphipods that live there.


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Why it still feels like Facebook is tracking you, even after all the privacy measures • WSJ

Katherine Bindley:


If we take advantage of all these privacy controls, it shouldn’t still feel as if Facebook is spying on us, right? We shouldn’t see so many ads that seem so closely tied to our activity on our phones, on the internet or in real life.

The reality? I took all those steps months ago, from turning off location services to opting out of Facebook and Instagram ads tied to off-site behavior. I told my iPhone to “limit ad tracking.” Yet I continue to see eerily relevant ads.

I tested my suspicion by downloading the What to Expect pregnancy app. I didn’t so much as share an email address, yet in less than 12 hours, I got a maternity-wear ad in my Instagram feed. I’m not pregnant, nor otherwise in a target market for maternity-wear. When I tried to retrace the pathway, discussing the issue with the app’s publisher, its data partners, the advertiser and Facebook itself—dozens of emails and phone calls—not one would draw a connection between the two events. Often, they suggested I ask one of the other parties.

Everyday Health Group, which owns What to Expect, said it has no business relationship with Hatch, the maternity brand whose ad I received. Facebook initially said there could be any number of reasons I might have seen the ad—but that downloading the app couldn’t be one of them.


Bindley goes into quite some detail about how location tracking persists, and “Why I’m Seeing an Ad” doesn’t explain why, and you might see ads on Facebook based on what you do outside it even if you opt out of seeing ads based on what you do outside Facebook.

It’s like the vampire squid of data.

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FTC brings first case challenging fake paid reviews on an independent retail website • Federal Trade Commission


According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants advertised and sold “Quality Encapsulations Garcinia Cambogia Extract with HCA” capsules on as an appetite-suppressing, fat-blocking, weight-loss pill.

The FTC alleges that the defendants paid a website,, to create and post Amazon reviews of their product. The FTC contends that Jacobowitz told the website’s operator that his product needed to have an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars in order to have sales and to, “Please make my product … stay a five star.”

As described in the FTC’s complaint, the reviews the defendants bought were posted on and gave the product a five-star rating. The complaint charges the defendants with representing that the purchased Amazon reviews were truthful reviews written by actual purchasers, when in reality they were fabricated.

The FTC’s complaint also alleges that the defendants made false and unsubstantiated claims on their Amazon product page, including through the purchased reviews, that their garcinia cambogia product is a “powerful appetite suppressant,” “Literally BLOCKS FAT From Forming,” causes significant weight loss, including as much as twenty pounds, and causes rapid and substantial weight loss, including as much as two or more pounds per week…

…the order imposes a judgment of $12.8m, which will be suspended upon payment of $50,000 to the Commission and the payment of certain unpaid income tax obligations. If the defendants are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition to the FTC, the full amount of the judgment will immediately become due.


Note that ending. Basically the FTC is aware of the possibility that these people have been coining it and hiding the fact. Over to you now, Amazon, for how you’re going to deal with this.
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Apple Watch captures half of 18 million global smartwatch shipments in Q4 2018 • Strategy Analytics Online Newsroom


According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 56% annually to reach a record 18m units in the fourth quarter of 2018. Apple Watch maintained first position with 51% global smartwatch marketshare, while Samsung jumped to second place, overtaking Fitbit and Garmin.

Steven Waltzer, Industry Analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 56% annually from 11.6 million units in Q4 2017 to a record 18.2 million in Q4 2018. Global smartwatch shipments hit an all-time high of 45.0 million units in full-year 2018. Smartwatch growth is soaring, as consumers seek to accessorize their smartphones and bring digital connectivity to their wrists.”

Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Apple shipped 9.2 million smartwatches worldwide in Q4 2018, rising 18% from 7.8 million units in Q4 2017. Apple’s global smartwatch marketshare slipped to 51% this quarter, down from 67% a year ago. Apple Watch is losing marketshare to Samsung and Fitbit, whose rival smartwatch portfolios and retail presence have improved significantly in the past year.”

Steven Waltzer, Industry Analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung shipped 2.4 million smartwatches worldwide and captured 13% global smartwatch marketshare in Q4 2018, rising strongly from 5% marketshare a year ago. Samsung is once again the world’s second largest smartwatch brand.”


I love how increasing your shipments by 1.4m units so that you’re still outselling everyone else put together is presented as “losing market share”. It’s a bit like a race where you’ve lapped everyone, so the scorers aggregate the distance everyone else has run and suggest they’re catching up. Phrases like “Samsung is once again the world’s second largest smartwatch brand” seem tailored to attract the eyes, and hence spending, of companies’ marketing departments (“let’s put that on the poster”).

And still no sign of Google’s WearOS making any impact here. It’s Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin; “others” are less than 20% of the 2018 market.
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‘Abhinandan’, ‘Balakot’, ‘Pulwama’: Bollywood producers fight to register “patriotic” movie titles • HuffPost India

Ankur Pathak:


“PULWAMA: THE DEADLY ATTACK,” declared the middle-aged Bollywood producer, before turning to his mousy assistant. “Kaisa laga?”

The assistant hurriedly indicated his assent. “Ek Aur Likho —Pulwama Attack Versus Surgical Strikes 2.0,” the producer said, before turning to this correspondent. “You’ve got to think of long, complicated titles. The straight ones like Pulwama, Surgical Strike 2.0, Balakot are all gone.”

While most of India anxiously waits for news of war and prays for the safe return of captured Indian Air Force Pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, Bollywood is moving quickly to capitalise on this national tragedy.

February 26, the day India launched air strikes on Pakistan, was an unusually busy day at the cramped up offices of the Indian Motion Pictures’ Producers’ Association (IMMPA) in Andheri in Western Mumbai as representatives of at least 5 different production companies rushed to reserve jingoistic movie titles for films that they hoped to make in the future.

A person present at the office described the scene as “a khichdi,” saying producers fought to register titles like Balakot, Surgical Strikes 2.0, and Pulwama Attacks. “After a point, they started discussing amongst themselves, suggesting variations of the same title,” said the person, who begged off being identified for the fear of upsetting Bollywood bigwigs. “It was quite a sight.”


Something something clouds something silver linings something post-apocalyptic film showtimes
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Apple self-driving car layoffs hit 190 employees in Santa Clara, Sunnyvale •

Roland Li:


Apple will lay off 190 employees in Santa Clara and Sunnyvale in its self-driving car division, the company said.

The layoffs were disclosed, along with new details, in a letter this month to the California Employment Development Department. CNBC reported last month that layoffs were occurring in the self-driving car division, known as Project Titan. Tom Neumayr, an Apple spokesman, confirmed that the letter to the state referenced the same layoffs.

Most of the affected employees are engineers, including 38 engineering program managers, 33 hardware engineers, 31 product design engineers and 22 software engineers. The layoffs will take effect April 16, according to the filing.

Apple’s expansion into Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, which are close to the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, ramped up starting in 2014, according to property records and previous news reports. That was the same year the self-driving division was founded.


Laying off engineers? Project Titan just added an -ic to its name.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,014: the Momo urban legend, how scooters die, plastic plumbs the depths, Bollywood’s silver lining in a mushroom cloud, and more

  1. Hi hi. It’s not that big a sin to mention when others grow a bit quicker than the iWatch. You speak about iStuff way more than about Android or Windows, and iStuff is about 15% of the market.

    I’m really curious what’s going on with smart watches, especially the importance of fashion vs functionality, and whether a combo device really makes sense or separate fitness trackers and smartphone extensions would fit better. And the whole concept bothers me, especially since a watch takes 2 hands to operate and deliver much more specific/limited functionality.

    The failure of WearOS is semi-interesting. It’s really hard to find a non-ugly, non-bulky smartwatch for Android (Mobvoi’s Ticwatch C2 is the least worst offender). I find the iWatch ugly too (less so now, but I never liked square watches), but Apple manages to set the fashion. Samsung’s stuff looks like a tank.

    I last tried them with an original LG G Watch, which I didn’t hate but couldn’t find any use for, and promptly gave away. Not sure if it’s worth spending $200 for a C2, the concept doesn’t seem to have evolved much since then, and I can get a whole phone or tablet for that money.

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