Start Up No.1,085: Huawei on the edge, the fake Iranian who the US admin leant on, Apple’s desirable sign-in system, Uber and bust?, and more


The way for modern men to stay in touch? Games voice chat systems. CC-licensed photo by Carlota Maura on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Yeah, another week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

For men who hate talking on the phone, games keep friendships alive • Kotaku

Cecilia D’Anastasio:

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[Eddie] Gill, a physician from Hingham, MA, is 30 years old—around the age when, according to an oft-cited study by Royal Society Open Science, the number of friendships the average man maintains dramatically declines. He is not a phone guy. He’ll talk to his mom, or his grandparents. Other than that, he finds keeping in touch with friends and family to be as difficult as chasing around his seven-month-old, or working with his patients. Like others his age, Gill says that his close friendships from high school and college have atrophied, not only because of the distance but because of their mutual aversion to talking on the phone.

“The absolute exception,” said Gill, “are the friends I regularly play games with.”

Put Eddie Gill and one of his friends on the phone, and it would be painful for both parties—stilted conversation, awkward silences, brusque goodbyes. But drop them into a game of Apex Legends and the conversation flows freely.

Over Xbox voice chat, Gill gabs with his buddies about the latest Game of Thrones episode, their favorite NFL teams and, sometimes, their personal lives. When his wife was pregnant, he told his friends over a game of Destiny 2. Like over two dozen other people Kotaku spoke to—the vast majority of whom were men—Gill says online gaming has replaced phone calls, and even real-life meetups. It’s cemented male relationships that might otherwise have evaporated.

“I don’t think I would be as close with these guys if we didn’t hang out online the way we do,” Gill says of his childhood friends with whom he plays Apex Legends. “It would be impossible.”

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Such a great piece of observation.
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Dutch news aggregate website Blendle ditches pay-per-article service • DutchNews.nl

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Dutch digital news aggregator Blendle is to stop selling individual news articles for ‘quarters’ and will focus instead on its premium subscription service.

Blendle launched in 2014 as an online news platform that collected articles from a variety of newspapers and magazines and sold them on a pay-per-article basis.

In 2017 the company launched its premium service which provides readers with pre-selected article suggestions and magazine access for €10 a month.

‘Nine in 10 start-ups are dead within a year, but we are still around five years on,’ Klopping is quoted as saying in the AD. ‘I lead a team of 50, we have 60,000 subscribers and 100,000 people who pay per article. But I have to be honest. We are still not making a profit.’

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Hard to see this surviving in the face of Apple News(+).
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Is Heshmat Alavi, writer on Iran, a fake run by MEK opposition? • The Intercept

Murtaza Hussain:

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In 2018, president Donald Trump was seeking to jettison the landmark nuclear deal that his predecessor had signed with Iran in 2015, and he was looking for ways to win over a skeptical press. The White House claimed that the nuclear deal had allowed Iran to increase its military budget, and Washington Post reporters Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly asked for a source. In response, the White House passed along an article published in Forbes by a writer named Heshmat Alavi.

“Iran’s current budget is funded largely through ‘oil, taxes, increasing bonds, [and] eliminating cash handouts or subsidies’ for Iranians, according to an article by a Forbes contributor, Heshmat Alavi, sent to us by a White House official,” Rizzo and Kelly reported. The White House had used Alavi’s article — itself partly drawn from Iranian sources — to justify its decision to terminate the agreement.

There’s a problem, though: Heshmat Alavi appears not to exist. Alavi’s persona is a propaganda operation run by the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which is known by the initials MEK, two sources told The Intercept.

“Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK,” said Hassan Heyrani, a high-ranking defector from the MEK who said he had direct knowledge of the operation. “They write whatever they are directed by their commanders and use this name to place articles in the press. This is not and has never been a real person.”

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So similar to 2001-2, when false intelligence from Iraq opposition members helped drive the US invasion of Iraq. Except that this time the administration didn’t even bother to check whether the person existed.
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Technical glitches plague Cruise, GM’s $19bn self-driving car unit • The Information

Amir Efrati:

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Aside from software shutting off unexpectedly, other more common issues that have surfaced in regular testing of Cruise’s self-driving cars include near collisions with other vehicles, strange steering or unexpected braking—all of which can unnerve passengers, according to previously undisclosed data. (A human backup driver is always present to grab the wheel if anything goes wrong.) Moreover, the cars are relatively slow: in testing in San Francisco, trips typically take 80% longer than they would with a regular car, according to people with knowledge of the company. Cruise did not have a comment.

And comparing Cruise’s vehicles to how regular cars driven by people perform suggest that Cruise’s system, by the end of this year, is expected to be only 5% to 10% as safe as human-level driving in terms of the frequency of crashes, internal data shows. (See separate story.)

Cruise’s problems are not unique. Alphabet’s Waymo, which last December launched a limited robotaxi service with human backup drivers in suburban Phoenix, also has struggled. Uber, which has poured more than a billion dollars into its own self-driving car technology, has been largely stymied since one of its vehicles killed a pedestrian last year. None of the programs are close to offering safe driverless vehicles to the public at a meaningful scale, let alone showing how they might operate the vehicles profitably.

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I find it really hard to know where we are on this timeline. In 2012, it took a colossal effort for Google to categorise cat videos. Last week a conference heard that you could do the same work for $200 in the cloud. Are we maybe just expecting too much, too soon of self-driving vehicles?
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The guy who made a tool to track women in porn videos is sorry • MIT Technology Review

Angela Chen:

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There is still no proof that the global system—which allegedly matched women’s social-media photos with images from sites like Pornhub—actually worked, or even existed. Still, the technology is possible and would have had awful consequences. “It’s going to kill people,” says Carrie A. Goldberg, an attorney who specializes in sexual privacy violations and author of the forthcoming book Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls. “Some of my most viciously harassed clients have been people who did porn, oftentimes one time in their life and sometimes nonconsensually [because] they were duped into it. Their lives have been ruined because there’s this whole culture of incels that for a hobby expose women who’ve done porn and post about them online and dox them.” (Incels, or “involuntary celibates,” are a misogynistic online subculture of men who claim they are denied sex by women.)

The European Union’s GDPR privacy law prevents this kind of situation. Though the programmer—who posted about the project on the Chinese social network Weibo—originally insisted everything was fine because he didn’t make the information public, just collecting the data is illegal if the women didn’t consent, according to Börge Seeger, a data protection expert and partner at German law firm Neuwerk. These laws apply to any information from EU residents, so they would have held even if the programmer weren’t living in the EU.

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GDPR! *empties shot glass*
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25 things Apple announced for iOS 13 that we want on Android • Android Police

Rita El Khoury:

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While the dominating rhetoric over many years has been Apple’s uncanny ability to announce an Android feature that has existed for years as innovative and ground-breaking, things have changed recently. 2019 was one of the most interesting thanks to plenty of both small and big additions to iOS 13 that leave us a little doe-eyed and jealous. So here are twenty five new iOS features we’d really like to see on Android.

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Top thing: sign in with Apple. The list is quite surprising. (The comments are.. comments.)
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Apple’s new sign-in button is built for a post-Cambridge Analytica world • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

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Apple is introducing its own single sign-on (SSO) service, a direct competitor to the services offered by Google and Facebook. The new service is aimed at paring back data collection, with only minimal data shared with the app and a promise to quarantine any data collected within Apple itself so it can’t be used for other purposes. More importantly, the service will be mandatory for any iOS apps using SSO, which makes it an instant competitor to Google and Facebook’s offerings.

That might seem like an odd move from a hardware company, but Apple has made an explicit push toward web services in recent years, with a particular focus on privacy. The new sign-on button fits right in with iMessage’s focus on encryption and Safari’s push against third-party tracking, all fitting in with Apple’s broader vision of itself as a cleaner and more controlled alternative to the rest of the tech world. Unlike iMessage, that system won’t be restricted to iPhone users. It will be available on Android and web browsers, too, which means there’s less concern about lock-in than you might think.

It also means the system could reach more users than any previous effort, aiming for internet-wide scale in a way that few Apple products do. But unlike cookie-blocking or encryption, this latest move is targeted at legitimate software as much as hostile intruders. The people losing data from this change won’t be hackers or third-party ad networks, but apps you’ve purposefully installed on your phone and networks you’ve chosen to join. It’s a product of the growing scope of privacy concerns in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, and it’s a sign of just how much tech infrastructure needs to be rebuilt as our expectations of privacy change.

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Also has some explanation of how this works (it’s not quite just giving you a fake email). Brandom suggests “it’s just shifting your trust from Google/Facebook to Apple”, but that isn’t right. Apple doesn’t have any incentive to take a meta-view on that data, unlike the other two.
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Acting budget chief seeks reprieve on Huawei ban • WSJ

Dan Strumpf:

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The request from Mr. Vought, dated June 4, asks for a delay in the implementation of portions of the National Defense Authorization Act… The delay, if enacted, would be a reprieve for Huawei, which has been the target of a series of US actions that threaten its dominance in telecommunications technology. In addition to the law targeting its business, they include last month’s Commerce Department order placing Huawei on a blacklist preventing the sale of American technology to the company, as well as an executive order that paves the way for a ban on Huawei from doing business in the US.

The letter says the NDAA rules could lead to a “dramatic reduction” in the number of companies that would be able to supply the government, and would disproportionately affect US companies in rural areas—where Huawei gear is popular—that rely on federal grants. The letter asks for the restrictions on contractors and on federal loan and grant recipients to take effect four years from the law’s passage, instead of the current two years, to give affected companies time to respond and give feedback.

“While the Administration recognizes the importance of these prohibitions to national security,” the letter states, “a number of agencies have heard significant concerns from a wide range of potentially impacted stakeholders who would be affected” by the rules as written.

In addition, the letter said “rural Federal grants recipients may be disproportionally impacted by the prohibition.”

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So Huawei is super-threatening, but not if it might mean people in rural areas (which tended to vote for Trump) might be inconvenienced in getting their hourly dose of Facebook?
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Huawei cuts orders to key suppliers after US blacklisting • Nikkei Asian Review

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

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Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, confirmed that orders from Huawei have declined since the Chinese company was hit with a de facto ban on using US technology. Taiwan-based Auras Technology, a top supplier of cooling modules for Huawei devices, said a Chinese customer’s orders were affected, without naming the company.

A source familiar with Huawei smartphone orders told the Nikkei Asian Review that the company has downgraded its forecast for total smartphone shipments in the second half of 2019 by “about 20% to 30%” from the previous estimate following the US move to put the tech giant on the so-called Entity List, which in effect bans American companies from working with Huawei and its affiliates.

Other suppliers worldwide also need to comply with the new U.S. regulation if they are indirectly shipping a certain amount of American technologies to Huawei.

“Suppliers are receiving different ranges of order adjustments,” the person familiar with Huawei’s smartphone business said. “Suppliers mainly for markets outside of China were affected the most, while some suppliers that help Huawei in its home market actually benefited from the rising demand amid patriotic sentiment.”

Another representative at a Huawei supplier that makes power-related components for its smartphone and telecom gear businesses told the Nikkei Asian Review the Chinese company has suspended some orders.

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In the second half of 2018 Huawei shipped 112.5m phones (up 33% on the previous year), so maybe it’s just going to stand still. You’d imagine its ambition was to keep growing at the same rate.
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Google warns of US national security risks from Huawei ban • Financial Times

Kiran Stacey and James Politi:

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Google in particular is concerned it would not be allowed to update its Android operating system on Huawei’s smartphones, which it argues would prompt the Chinese company to develop its own version of the software.

Google argues a Huawei-modified version of Android would be more susceptible to being hacked, according to people briefed on its lobbying efforts. Huawei has said it would be able to develop its own operating system “very quickly”.

One person with knowledge of the conversations said: “Google has been arguing that by stopping it from dealing with Huawei, the US risks creating two kinds of Android operating system: the genuine version and a hybrid one. The hybrid one is likely to have more bugs in it than the Google one, and so could put Huawei phones more at risk of being hacked, not least by China.”

Washington has been concerned for years that telecoms equipment sold by Huawei could be used by Beijing for hacking. But since Donald Trump entered office, these concerns have come to the fore.

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Seems a bit of a stretch. The obvious retort from the US admin side would be “so tell everyone not to buy from Huawei. Get a logo like ‘Intel Inside’ but saying ‘Google Inside’ – ‘Good To Google’? – and rely on that.”
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Uber’s path of destruction • American Affairs Journal

Hubert Horan:

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Most public criticisms of Uber have focused on narrow behavioral and cultural issues, including deceptive advertising and pricing, algorithmic manipulation, driver exploitation, deep-seated misogyny among executives, and disregard of laws and business norms. Such criticisms are valid, but these problems are not fixable aberrations. They were the inevitable result of pursuing “growth at all costs” without having any ability to fund that growth out of positive cash flow. And while Uber has taken steps to reduce negative publicity, it has not done—and cannot do—anything that could suddenly pro duce a sustainable, profitable business model.

Uber’s longer-term goal was to eliminate all meaningful competition and then profit from this quasi-monopoly power. While it has already begun using some of this artificial power to suppress driver wages, it has not achieved the Facebook- or Amazon-type “plat form” power it hoped to exploit. Given that both sustainable profits and true industry dominance seemed unachievable, Uber’s investors de cided to take the company public, based on the hope that enough gullible investors still believe that the compa ny’s rapid growth and popularity are the result of powerfully effi cient inno vations and do not care about its inability to generate profits.

These beliefs about Uber’s corporate value were created entirely out of thin air. This is not a case of a company with a reasonably sound operating business that has managed to inflate stock market expectations a bit. This is a case of a massive valuation that has no relationship to any economic fundamentals. Uber has no competitive efficiency advantages, operates in an industry with few barriers to entry, and has lost more than $14bn in the previous four years. But its narratives convinced most people in the media, invest ment, and tech worlds that it is the most valuable transportation company on the planet and the second most valuable start-up IPO in U.S. history (after Facebook).

Uber is the breakthrough case where the public perception of a large new company was entirely created using the types of manufactured narratives typically employed in partisan political campaigns. Narrative construction is perhaps Uber’s greatest competitive strength.

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He then rips apart its economics; you’ll be happy to take an Uber (well, perhaps; it’s putting taxi drivers who make a profit out of business) but certainly avoid the shares.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,085: Huawei on the edge, the fake Iranian who the US admin leant on, Apple’s desirable sign-in system, Uber and bust?, and more

  1. re. Android’s iOS wishlist. 2 things:

    1- There’s a kind of open-mindedness on the Android side that I’m never seeing on the Apple side. Has any major iOS site ever made a similar list ? This combines with a) the ability of all iReviews to not contrast&compare w/ non-Apple products and b) the strange silence of any and all Apple employees on political/societal issues all other GAFA drones are getting a bit lively about, and gives the impression of an impenetrable iBubble.

    2- some/a lot of the desired improvements (more than 1/3, less than 1/2 ?) are available through 3rd-party apps or OEM customizations. It’s nice and simple when things are available as default, but still, one of the key differences between iOS and Android is that you can make any 3rd-party app your default. Also, I think there’s an information gap about OEM customizations: for all their evilness (bloat, pointless differences, delayed updates) they also bring about valuable features, yet the mainstream Android gospel is a univocal “skins are bad”.
    I’ve dug into Xiaomi’s MIUI out of necessity, it does infuriatingly mess up the phone’s Settings, but it doesn’t break anything, doesn’t lag, and adds valuable features in the end: time-of-day darkmode, dual apps (2 icons for one app w/ 2 different accounts), second place (2 full instances of the OS for say work/private or me/kids), apps& data migration (vanilla Android isn’t as smooth as iOS), hidden/secured apps and folders (not sure if this has made it to vanilla Android yet). You’ve got your MIUI, EMUI (Huawei), Samsung ONE; ColorOS (Oppo, maybe the rest of BBK) fansites, but the mainstream sites, tech and even more non-tech, just wholesale dismiss skins as negatives. This seems unduly harsh, quite few Android even iOS features originated there (pen support, PIP/split/floating windows, gamepad support, multiple accounts, post-install app permissions control, game mode -which is an iOS-like “no background activity” mode,…)

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