Start Up No.1,040: Netflix crashlands AirPlay, is Facebook the new Microsoft?, Google’s AI ethics board disbands, how to make remote working work, and more


What do we do when the antibiotics stop working? CC-licensed photo by mostly*harmless on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A mysterious infection, spanning the globe in a climate of secrecy • The New York Times

Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs:

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The germ, a fungus called Candida auris, preys on people with weakened immune systems, and it is quietly spreading across the globe. Over the last five years, it has hit a neonatal unit in Venezuela, swept through a hospital in Spain, forced a prestigious British medical center to shut down its intensive care unit, and taken root in India, Pakistan and South Africa.

Recently C. auris reached New York, New Jersey and Illinois, leading the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add it to a list of germs deemed “urgent threats.”

The man at Mount Sinai died after 90 days in the hospital, but C. auris did not. Tests showed it was everywhere in his room, so invasive that the hospital needed special cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it.

“Everything was positive — the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump,” said Dr. Scott Lorin, the hospital’s president. “The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive.”

C. auris is so tenacious, in part, because it is impervious to major antifungal medications, making it a new example of one of the world’s most intractable health threats: the rise of drug-resistant infections.

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Between this and climate change, we’re really racing towards giant problems in the next decades.
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Netflix confirms it killed AirPlay support, won’t let you beam shows to Apple TVs anymore • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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With no warning and little explanation, Netflix has removed the easiest way to sling its shows from one Apple device to another: AirPlay.

Netflix confirmed to The Verge that it pulled the wireless casting feature this past week, due to what it’s calling a “technical limitation.” But it’s not the kind of technical limitation you’d think.

You see, Apple recently partnered with most of the major TV brands to allow AirPlay 2 to send shows directly to their 2019 TV sets with a firmware update later this year, but a Netflix spokeperson tells me AirPlay 2 doesn’t have digital identifiers to let Netflix tell those TVs apart — and so the company can’t certify its users are getting the best Netflix experience when casting to those new sets.

So now, it’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater and pulling the plug on AirPlay, period. “We can’t distinguish which device is which, we can’t actually certify the devices… so we’ve had to just shut down support for it,” a Netflix spokesperson says.

To be clear, that means Apple TV set-top box users can no longer cast Netflix, either.

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Oh, sure. “..to ensure our standard of quality for viewing is being met.” As if smart TVs don’t have a zillion settings – aspect ratio, zoom, motion smoothing – that Netflix completely ignores, even though they don’t give people the best quality for viewing.

It comes across as a pissant tit-for-tat, coming just after Apple announced its own video channel offering (but no date or price). All it does is inconvenience Netflix users; you’re not going to get people who own at least one Apple device (casting the show) to give it up just for this. And a smart TV will surely have the Netflix app on it, so this is doubly pointless.
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Google asked 5,600 employees about remote work. This is what they learned • Fast Company

Ruth Reader:

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Working remotely can be really tough. To get some insight into how to do it better, Google conducted a two-year study involving data from 5,600 employees across the US, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Approximately 30% of the company’s meetings involve staff in more than two time zones, and 39% involve more than two cities. Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, oversaw the study and has written a guide for how to make the most of distributed teams. Today, she is releasing a report of her findings.

On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says Gilrane. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

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Samsung Electronics flags earnings miss as chip prices slide • Reuters

Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang:

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Samsung Electronics said on Tuesday first-quarter profit would likely miss market expectations due to falls in chip prices and slowing demand for display panels, in an unprecedented statement ahead of its earnings guidance.

The announcement came after the Apple Inc supplier and rival told shareholders last week that slack global economic growth and softer demand for memory chips, its core business, would weigh on operations in 2019.

“The company expects the scope of price declines in main memory chip products to be larger than expected,” Samsung said in a regulatory filing pre-empting its earnings guidance due next week.

Samsung did not elaborate on the purpose of its filing. A company official confirmed the global leader in smartphones, televisions and computer chips had not previously provided comment before its official earnings estimate.

The firm was forecast to post a 7.2 trillion won (US$6.4bn) operating profit for the January-March period, according to Refinitiv SmartEstimate, more than 50% below the 15.6 trillion won recorded in the same period a year ago.

Its sales were expected to fall to 53.7 trillion won from 60.6 trillion won a year ago, Refinitiv shows.

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Chips and displays have been the driver of Samsung’s profits for a while now; memory chips have seen a glut worldwide, though.
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Exclusive: Google cancels AI ethics board in response to outcry • Vox

Kelsey Piper:

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Thursday afternoon, a Google spokesperson told Vox that the company has decided to dissolve the panel, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), entirely. Here is the company’s statement in full:

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It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted. So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board. We’ll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics.

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The panel was supposed to add outside perspectives to ongoing AI ethics work by Google engineers, all of which will continue. Hopefully, the cancellation of the board doesn’t represent a retreat from Google’s AI ethics work, but a chance to consider how to more constructively engage outside stakeholders.

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It was a total AI-wash (we need a better word), and good riddance. The board wouldn’t have agreed on anything, and there’s no indication Google would have taken any notice of what they said, or if they could have said it publicly. The puzzle is who at Google thought it was a good idea, and picked those people. Many more questions around this.
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Microsoft, Facebook, trust and privacy • Benedict Evans

Evans finds strong parallels, 25-odd years apart:

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much like the [creators of the] Microsoft macro viruses, the ‘bad actors’ on Facebook did things that were in the manual. They didn’t prise open a locked window at the back of the building – they knocked on the front door and walked in. They did things that you were supposed to be able to do, but combined them in an order and with malign intent that hadn’t really been anticipated.

It’s also interesting to compare the public discussion of Microsoft and of Facebook before these events. In the 1990s, Microsoft was the ‘evil empire’, and a lot of the narrative within tech focused on how it should be more open, make it easier for people to develop software that worked with the Office monopoly, and make it easier to move information in and out of its products. Microsoft was ‘evil’ if it did anything to make life harder for developers. Unfortunately, whatever you thought of this narrative, it pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this use case. Here, Microsoft was too open, not too closed.

Equally, in the last 10 years many people have argued that Facebook is too much of a ‘walled garden’ – that is is too hard to get your information out and too hard for researchers to pull information from across the platform. People have argued that Facebook was too restrictive on how third party developers could use the platform. And people have objected to Facebook’s attempts to enforce the single real identities of accounts. As for Microsoft, there may well have been justice in all of these arguments, but also as for Microsoft, they pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this particular scenario. For the Internet Research Agency, it was too easy to develop for Facebook, too easy to get data out, and too easy to change your identity. The walled garden wasn’t walled enough. 

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Fun fact: GPS uses 10 bits to store the week. That means it runs out… oh heck – April 6, 2019 • The Register

Shaun Nichols:

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Older satnavs and such devices won’t be able to use America’s Global Positioning System properly after April 6 unless they’ve been suitably updated or designed to handle a looming epoch rollover.

GPS signals from satellites include a timestamp, needed in part to calculate one’s location, that stores the week number using ten binary bits. That means the week number can have 210 or 1,024 integer values, counting from zero to 1,023 in this case. Every 1,024 weeks, or roughly every 20 years, the counter rolls over from 1,023 to zero.

The first Saturday in April will mark the end of the 1,024th week, after which the counter will spill over from 1,023 to zero. The last time the week number overflowed like this was in 1999, nearly two decades on from the first epoch in January 1980.

You can see where this is going. If devices in use today are not designed or patched to handle this latest rollover, they will revert to an earlier year after that 1,024th week in April, causing attempts to calculate position to potentially fail. System and navigation data could even be corrupted, we’re warned.

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Newer devices are fine, though the Samsung Galaxy S2 seems to be affected. The weird way GPS counts time (using 1.5 second increments) is worth reading.
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The people behind ByteDance’s app factory • The Information

Yunan Zhang:

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ByteDance’s huge headcount [of 40,000, more than Facebook’s 35,600 full-time staff] is the reflection of a nagging reality. The firm bills itself not as a content platform but as primarily an artificial intelligence business whose algorithms can automatically match any kind of content to users. But its operations are labor-intensive.

About half of the company’s labor force is engaged in either ad sales or content moderation. About 10,000 employees work on the ad sales side, trying to sell ad space in ByteDance apps to China’s small, medium and large enterprises. Many are employed in call centers, focused on recruiting new advertisers and trying to draw away advertisers from rival platforms like Baidu. These salespeople have high performance goals. Running the company’s monetization team is Zhang Lidong. Before joining ByteDance, he was an experienced journalist and head of advertising at a newspaper, the Beijing Times.

So far, ByteDance’s advertising revenue is nearly all derived from the domestic market. It’s unclear how it will build out a sales channel overseas once it starts marketing its platform to advertisers and whether it will require additional hires for sales teams.

Another 10,000 employees, spread across different products, monitor the content on ByteDance apps, including Toutiao and the domestic version of TikTok, called Douyin. Their task is to make sure content abides by China’s rules. China’s censorship rules are vague and often fluid. What’s OK to publish today is suddenly forbidden tomorrow, depending on opaque internal Communist Party dictates. President Xi Jinping has tightened the party’s grip on online expression. ByteDance has also faced claims that it is helping to spread gossip and disinformation.

ByteDance has in the past run afoul of China’s strict censorship regime, which even ordered the shutdown of a ByteDance popular comedy app. When last year ByteDance hired an extra 2,000 content moderators, it gave priority to hiring Communist Party members.

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Got that? A quarter of its staff are there for content moderation. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either proportionate, or crazy.
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Android TV update puts home-screen ads on multi-thousand-dollar Sony Smart TVs • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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The advertising is a “Sponsored Channel” part of the “Android TV Core Services” app that ships with all Android TV devices. A “Channel” in Android TV parlance means an entire row of thumbnails in the UI will be dedicated to “sponsored” content. Google provided XDA Developers with a statement saying that yes, this is on purpose, but for now it’s a “pilot program.”

Sony has tersely worded a support page detailing the “Sponsored channel,” too. There’s no mention here of it being a pilot program. Sony’s page, titled “A sponsored channel has suddenly appeared on my TV Home menu,” says, “This change is included in the latest Android TV Launcher app (Home app) update. The purpose is to help you discover new apps and contents for your TV.”

Sony goes on to say, “This channel is managed by Google” and “the Sponsored channel cannot be customized.” Sony basically could replace the entire page with a “Deal with it” sunglasses gif, and it would send the same message.

Buying a product knowing it has ads in it is one thing, but users on Reddit and elsewhere are understandably angry about ads suddenly being patched into their devices—especially in cases when these devices are multi-thousand-dollar 4K Sony televisions. There is an option to disable the ads if you dig into the settings but users are reporting the ads aren’t staying disabled. For now, uninstalling updates for the “Android TV Core Services” app is the best way to remove the ads.

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“But that’s my nature,” said the scorpion.
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Apple hires AI expert Ian Goodfellow from Google • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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Goodfellow updated his LinkedIn profile on Thursday to acknowledge that he moved from Google to Apple in March. He said he’s a director of machine learning in the Special Projects Group. In addition to developing AI for features like FaceID and Siri, Apple also has been working on autonomous driving technology. Recently the autonomous group had a round of layoffs.

A Google spokesperson confirmed his departure. Apple declined to comment. Goodfellow didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Goodfellow is the father of an AI approach known as generative adversarial networks, or GANs. The approach draws on two networks, one known as a generative network and the other known as a discriminative network, and can be used to come up with unusual and creative outputs in the form of audio, video and text.

GAN systems have been used to generate “deepfake” fake media content.

Goodfellow got his Ph.D. at the University of Montreal in 2014, and since then he has worked at OpenAI and Google. At OpenAI he was paid more than $800,000, according to a tax filing. His research is widely cited in academic literature.

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Quite what Apple is doing with machine learning remains unclear; there’s a paper on GANs published by one of its teams, and you don’t get any clue what application it has, except to other machine learning. But a big hire away from Google.
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What (probably) finally killed AirPower • iFixit

Craig Lloyd:

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Wireless charging pads use electromagnetic induction to juice up your phone. Both the pad and your phone contain wire coils: the pad draws current from the wall and runs it through the coil, creating an electromagnetic field. That field induces an electric current in your phone’s wire coil, which it uses to charge the battery.

However, the electricity being transmitted to your phone isn’t perfectly clean or ideal. It generates some noise, which can interfere with other wireless devices. That’s why the FCC (and regulatory bodies in other countries) set strict limits on wireless emissions.

Noise from a single coil might not be a problem, but each charging coil generates a slightly different waveform. When those waves overlap, the constructive interference intensifies their strength. Just like when two ocean waves collide and combine their height, radio frequencies can combine their intensity as they interact.

Managing these overlapping harmonic frequencies is incredibly challenging, and gets harder the more coils that you are integrating. From patent filings, it looks like Apple’s ambitious plan was to use considerably more coils [maybe up to 32] than other charging pads on the market.

Other multi-device wireless chargers place two or three coils side-by-side, but require you to fiddle with your phone to find the “sweet spot” over one coil for it to start charging. With AirPower, Apple was trying to create one large charging surface using overlapping coils, allowing it to power multiple devices from anywhere on the mat. But that introduces multiple challenges.

We asked an engineer with experience building wireless charging systems what obstacles Apple was working to overcome. “Over time, these harmonics add up and they become really powerful signals in the air,” explains William Lumpkins, VP of Engineering at O & S Services. “And that can be difficult—that can stop someone’s pacemaker if it’s too high of a level. Or it could short circuit someone’s hearing aid.” If Apple’s multi-coil layout was spinning off harmonics left and right, it’s possible AirPower couldn’t pass muster with US or EU regulations.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,040: Netflix crashlands AirPlay, is Facebook the new Microsoft?, Google’s AI ethics board disbands, how to make remote working work, and more

  1. The article on Apple’s cancelled charging mat and the insurmountable technical hurdles only highlights (IMO) what a stupid use of technology wireless charging is.

    It’s unfortunate that ‘wireless’ charging has become de rigueur as it;s so wasteful of energy and the so-called convenience is overplayed as well.

    A perusal of information available suggests that wireless charging wastes anything up to 25% of the energy it would take to charge directly via a wire which, when multiplied by the tens of millions of people using such equipment means a not insignificant amount of energy wasted for little added value. (A charging mat has to be connected by a wire to an outlet anyway and the device cannot be picked up and used whilst charging unlike via direct wired charge.)

    It’s sad to see companies who like to promote themselves as environmentally aware adopting inherently wasteful standards. Especially when they clearly thought they could do more with the tech than they subsequently discovered.

    • It’s more nuanced:
      1- Apple failing at something doesn’t highlight that the thing is bad, only that Apple is bad at it.
      2- I’ve lost one tablet because its power connector went bad. How much “25% of wasted power” would the energy and waste that went into making it have paid for ?
      3- I’ve got to buy wires in triplicate (home, travel bag, mom’s place) and then some (guests), chargers in duplicate, and two external batteries (large/heavy and small/light). All of that would go away if wireless charging was ubiquitous.
      4- I rarely use my phone while at my desk, but I often don’t bother to plug it in and regret it later. I think having a wireless stand (not mat) would work better for me than my current “plug sometimes, and lay flat” situation
      4- The waste of wireless charging pales in comparison to the waste of having non-maintainable devices, not even swappable batteries. We should pick our battles smartly ?

      • 1) No, Niall’s point is that induction charging is inherently wasteful. It doesn’t matter who’s implementing it; you can defeat physics.
        2) Perhaps you need to ask about the quality of the tablet’s build. But also: power connectors can be repaired, usually.
        3) If monkeys could fly, they’d be birds. Making a wasteful method ubiquitous is not an answer to “how do we do this more efficiently?”
        4) So get a stand. HYPER sells them. (“Hyper” also describes their mailshot antics, but the products are OK.) You can also get stand-up stands that will let you plug some phones in. Well, iPhones.
        5) Batteries in iPhones are replaceable. Just not user-replaceable, unless you’re brave. I can’t speak for other OEMs. This doesn’t mean wireless charging becomes more efficient. These aren’t either/or choices. You can choose not to use induction charging. If you can find an OEM offering replaceable batteries, go with it. Unfortunately that will severely limit your choices, whereas not using induction charging is a simple everyday choice which saves energy immediately.

      • 1) My point is that once you put in the context of having to buy cables, extra batteries and one connector’s fault killing a whole device, I’m not sure wireless charging is “inherently wasteful”, except when looking at the issue with absolutely no context as a physics, not use-case, issue.
        Car analogy: modern cars are faster and speed kills hence modern cars are more dangerous. One just has to forget to look at passive safety measures, quality of handling…
        2) I’m sorry for not buying iPads. Also I’m pretty sure it’s my fault and I broke it in a sleep (not drunk !) haze, because it was working in the evening, I set it up next to my bed, and in the morning I *knew* it was broken as soon as I woke up). DIYing it is on my to-do list but I’m not good at electronics, and paying to fix a $80 tablet makes no sense.
        3) Again, depends on whether the question is “is wireless charging less efficient” or “How do we make phone charging / phone ownership less wasteful”. I think we’re agreed on the answers, but not on the question.
        4) I’m not sure buying a device-specific stand (or 2 of them, every 2-3 years) isn’t more wasteful than 25% waste electricity, and I don’t quite trust generic stands to not damage that all-important connector.
        5) You’re right. But of the two issues, I’d bet phones getting junked because of an old battery is generating a lot more waste than wireless charging ever could, by orders of magnitude. Also, all phones’ batteries are shop-replaceable, but what once was a $15 no-work-required purchase back in the days of user-swappable batteries is now a $50-$100 in-shop procedure. Since this applies by definition to 4-5 yo models, that’s often the trigger for a phone replacement. I tend to see evil everywhere and think that’s the whole point of fixed, sealed batteries ;-p
        I’m supposed to DIY the battery swap on my 3yo Mi Max 1 so I can pass it along… I’m working up to it.

      • 1) To decide if wireless charging is more wasteful than the risk from connectors or cables going bad and meaning you have to repair/scrap your device, you’d need to know the general failure rate of connectors/cables, and their cost, and their respective carbon footprints. Given that it sounds like it’s a rare event even for you to have a failed connector – and especially one you can’t (or won’t) repair – one edges towards the “avoid wireless charging” side, but it might be finely balanced.
        4) you don’t need to buy stands again and again. Qi charging is interchangeable.
        5) assume, for your peace of mind, that the materials in phones get recycled. But I think awareness that batteries can be replaced is higher than it was. Maybe focus your ire on OEMs who don’t provide retail outlets or servicing where this can be done. Makes the initial purchase price lower, but means everyone pays in the end – a classic example of a negative externality, in economic theory.

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