Start Up No.1,110: Facebook gets off lightly, solar cheaper as coal goes bankrupt, TikTok is coming!, Jony Ive and his designs, and more


Turns out the “anything” you can organise with it includes families. CC-licensed photo by Brian Dys on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Two match points, though. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The families who use Slack, Asana, Trello, and Jira • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz, Joe Pinsker:

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Children’s free-play time has been on the decline for more than 50 years, and their participation in extracurricular activities has led to more schedule-juggling for parents. Parents are busier too, especially those whose jobs demand ever more attention after hours: 65% of parents with a college degree have trouble balancing work and family, a 2015 Pew Research Center report found, compared with about half of those without a college degree. In an effort to cope, some families are turning to software designed for offices. Parents are finding project-management platforms such as Trello, Asana, and Jira, in addition to Slack, a workplace communication tool (its slogan is “Where work happens”), particularly useful in their personal lives. In other words, confronted with relentless busyness, some modern households are starting to run more like offices.

Julie Berkun Fajgenbaum, a mom of three children ages 8 to 12, uses Google Calendar to manage her children’s time and Jira to keep track of home projects. Ryan Florence, a dad in Seattle, set up a family Slack account for his immediate and extended family to communicate more easily. And Melanie Platte, a mom in Utah, says Trello has transformed her family life. After using it at work, she implemented it at home in 2016. “We do family meetings every Sunday where we review goals for the week, our to-do list, and activities coming up,” she says. “I track notes for the meeting [in Trello]. I have different sections, goals for the week, a to-do list.” Her oldest son started high school last year, and Platte says that without productivity and task-management software, she doesn’t know how he could manage it all.

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Giant batteries and cheap solar power are shoving fossil fuels off the grid • Science

Robert Service:

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This month, officials in Los Angeles, California, are expected to approve a deal that would make solar power cheaper than ever while also addressing its chief flaw: It works only when the sun shines. The deal calls for a huge solar farm backed up by one of the world’s largest batteries. It would provide 7% of the city’s electricity beginning in 2023 at a cost of 1.997 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for the solar power and 1.3 cents per kWh for the battery. That’s cheaper than any power generated with fossil fuel.

“Goodnight #naturalgas, goodnight #coal, goodnight #nuclear,” Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, tweeted after news of the deal surfaced late last month. “Because of growing economies of scale, prices for renewables and batteries keep coming down,” adds Jacobson, who has advised countries around the world on how to shift to 100% renewable electricity. As if on cue, last week a major U.S. coal company—West Virginia–based Revelation Energy LLC—filed for bankruptcy, the second in as many weeks…

…Precipitous price declines have already driven a shift toward renewables backed by battery storage. In March, an analysis of more than 7000 global storage projects by Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that the cost of utility-scale lithium-ion batteries had fallen by 76% since 2012, and by 35% in just the past 18 months, to $187 per MWh. Another market watch firm, Navigant, predicts a further halving by 2030, to a price well below what 8minute has committed to.

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FTC approves roughly $5 billion Facebook settlement • WSJ

Emily Glazer, Ryan Tracy and Jeff Horwitz:

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Facebook said in April that to settle the probe it was expecting to pay up to $5bn. A resolution was bogged down by the party-line split on the FTC, with the Democrats pushing for tougher oversight of the social-media giant.

One point of disagreement was the extent to which Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg should be held responsible or be made accountable for future missteps.

The FTC investigation began more than a year ago after reports that personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users improperly wound up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked on President Trump’s 2016 campaign. The FTC investigation centered on whether that lapse violated a 2012 consent decree with the agency under which Facebook agreed to better protect user privacy.

Cambridge Analytica shut down in 2018 after the allegations surrounding Facebook data and other questions about its political tactics. The company had won political consulting work in the US by promising to use data to profile and influence voters with political messages. It contracted for several Republican presidential candidates ahead of the 2016 election, including Mr. Trump’s campaign.

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So the decision split along party lines, in the bizarre way that everything in the US must be politicised. The question about Zuckerberg isn’t resolved anywhere in the story: guess we’ll have to wait for the official FTC announcement.
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The biggest star at VidCon 2019 is TikTok • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:

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TikTok, which boomed in China before entering the US market in August, allows users to upload and edit 15-second videos, usually set to catchy music or voice-overs. The videos are fun and silly, and watching them feels like taking a break from the broader, toxic world of social media. In one video, a teen does a viral dance with traffic cones fitted to his legs. In another, a stream of puppies tumble over one another to the beat of an EDM song. Less than a year after its US launch, the platform is poised to dominate the American social-media landscape and upend the creator ecosystem.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at VidCon. Vanessa Pappas, the general manager for TikTok, spoke with industry executives at a fireside chat yesterday that was so popular, many people couldn’t get in; later, big TikTok stars held a meet and greet that was packed to capacity. Outside the primary entrance to the convention center, teenagers swarmed TikTok creators, shouting their names as they shot dance videos.

None of this is by accident. All those mozzarella sticks and gummy bears didn’t come from nowhere: TikTok reportedly spent nearly $1bn on advertising alone last year, and has aggressively courted YouTube’s biggest creators. According to The Wall Street Journal, TikTok paid one influencer $1m for a single 15-second video. TikTok was the third-most-installed app worldwide in the first quarter of 2019, behind WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It boasts 1.2bn monthly users globally, making it potentially bigger than Instagram, which reported 1bn monthly users in 2018, and a viable competitor to YouTube (1.9bn monthly users) and Facebook (more than 2bn).

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On TikTok, teens meme Life360, the safety app ruining their summer • WIRED

Louise Matsakis:

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Apps like Life360 can give kids and parents a sense of security, but they also raise questions about privacy and children’s autonomy. And on TikTok, teenagers are discussing and debating them. Videos with the hashtag #Life360 have been viewed there over 13 million times. In some of the most popular clips, teens share with each other strategies for circumventing the app, usually by turning off various phone settings. Other videos are less practical and serve more as a form of venting. In one recording with more than 30,000 likes, a photo of Life360’s founder and CEO Chris Hulls appears onscreen, while a rap song with the lyrics “Snitch, snitch, the snitch, the snitch, snitch” plays.

“I think it’s completely unfair and detrimental to teenagers if their parents use this app on them regularly,” said a 16-year-old boy from Texas who, like all the young people in this story, was contacted via social media and requested anonymity to talk freely about his family. “I spend most of my time texting my parents about what’s going on rather than spending time with my friends.”

Other teens are more understanding of their parents’ use of the app but think Life360 is too invasive. “If I am going a little over the speed limit on the freeway just to keep up with traffic, my parents freak out,” said a 16-year-old girl from California. “I understand where my parents are coming from, but I believe that the app has too many features that make it over the top.”

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Gives a new meaning to helicopter parenting.
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Gartner, IDC agree that PC sales are up—but they don’t agree what a PC is • Ars Technica

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We’ve been hearing for quite some time that the traditional PC is dying, but it’s not quite dead yet. Business analyst firms Gartner and IDC tackle the numbers differently, but both agree that sales of traditional PCs were up—in some regions, way up—in Q2 2019.

While both firms reported market growth in year-on-year PC sales, their actual figures differed. IDC reported a 4.7% growth in Q2 sales, where Gartner only reported 1.5%. The two firms’ numbers for US regional sales differed even more sharply, with Gartner claiming a 0.4% loss and IDC claiming a “high single digit gain.”

We spoke to IDC’s Jitesh Ubrani about the difference, and it turns out the two companies don’t quite agree on what is or is not a traditional PC. IDC counts Chromebooks as traditional PCs but doesn’t count Microsoft Surface tablets; Gartner does count Surface but doesn’t count Chromebooks. The higher numbers from IDC indicate a stronger market for Chromebooks than Surface, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with children in North American schools, where the inexpensive and easily locked-down Chromebooks are ubiquitous.

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Should be pretty easy to get the Chromebook number: estimating the number of Surfaces sold isn’t hard (it’s typically about a million per quarter, tops). Subtract and there you go.
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MMFixed: your Magic Mouse, but comfortable

Speaking of design:

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The Magic Mouse Fix is a quick and comfortable solution to the poor ergonomics of the Magic Mouse. If you plan on using your magic mouse for more than thirty minutes a day, this product will reduce stress on your wrist and improve the ergonomics of what is otherwise an amazing mouse. In the past 10 years we’ve sold the Magic Mouse Fix to many thousands of satisfied customers and believe you’ll love the Magic Mouse Fix! 

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Jony Ive’s mistakes: when beautiful design is bad design • OneZero

I wrote about the design of objects which are intended to be used:

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All of the plaudits for Jony Ive begin with how he and Steve Jobs saved Apple with the iMac. No doubt about it: that instantly recognizable shape became an icon, and led to thousands of imitations using translucent colored plastic, often in that same Bondi Blue, to show that they were part of the late-90s vibe. In a sense, the iMac was a triumph of packaging: the components inside were pretty straightforward. If Apple had put them into a beige box, the company would now be a historical footnote.

Yet what’s almost universally overlooked in the paeans to Ive’s design legacy is that the fabulous iMac design also included one of his worst mistakes: the “hockey puck” mouse, whose round shape was so unfriendly to the human hand that it effectively kickstarted the market for third-party USB mice out of thin air.

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There’s more (including the Apple TV remote, aka the “Siri remote”), the “trashcan” Mac Pro v the cheesegrater, butterfly keyboard and others.
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How US tech giants are helping to build China’s surveillance state • The Intercept

Ryan Gallagher:

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The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and US chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.

Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people…

…Anna Bacciarelli, a researcher at Amnesty International, said that the OpenPower Foundation’s decision to work with Semptian raises questions about its adherence to international human rights standards. “All companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their operations and supply chains,” Bacciarelli said, “including through partnerships and collaborations.”

Semptian presents itself publicly as a “big data” analysis company that works with internet providers and educational institutes. However, a substantial portion of the Chinese firm’s business is in fact generated through a front company named iNext, which sells the internet surveillance and censorship tools to governments.

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Malicious apps infect 25 million Android devices with ‘Agent Smith’ malware • Phys.org

Cat Ferguson:

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The apps, most of them games, were distributed through third-party app stores by a Chinese group with a legitimate business helping Chinese developers promote their apps on outside platforms. Check Point is not identifying the company, because they are working with local law enforcement. About 300,000 devices were infected in the US.

The malware was able to copy popular apps on the phone, including WhatsApp and the web browser Opera, inject its own malicious code and replace the original app with the weaponized version, using a vulnerability in the way Google apps are updated. The hijacked apps would still work just fine, which hid the malware from users.

Armed with all the permissions users had granted to the real apps, “Agent Smith” was able to hijack other apps on the phone to display unwanted ads to users. That might not seem like a significant problem, but the same security flaws could be used to hijack banking, shopping and other sensitive apps, according to Aviran Hazum, head of Check Point’s analysis and response team for mobile devices.

“Hypothetically, nothing is stopping them from targeting bank apps, changing the functionality to send your bank credentials” to a third party, Hazum said. “The user wouldn’t be able to see any difference, but the attacker could connect to your bank account remotely.”

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Atlantic League introduces ‘robot umpires’ to baseball • The Washington Post

Jacob Bogage:

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The either long-dreaded or long-awaited arrival of digitally rendered ballpark justice has come to professional baseball. Robot umpires have arrived.

Except, they’re not really robots. They’re human umpires wearing a Bluetooth-connected earpiece, connected to an iPhone, connected to a software program in the press box. The software doesn’t make every call, just balls and strikes. And if it’s wrong, the human umpire can step in to overrule the program, and his decision, not the software’s, is final.

The Atlantic League, an independent circuit with seven teams on the East Coast and one in Texas, became the first American professional baseball league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game on Wednesday night.

“It’s amazing how good these robots look. They look just like the actual umpires,” league president Rick White joked in a phone interview before the game. “Once people actually see this happening, they’re going to realize it’s not that big a deal.”

And during the game, it wasn’t. Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an Apple AirPod in his right ear, which connected to an iPhone in his back pocket. That communicated ball or strike calls from a computer in the press box.

Players shook their heads at a couple of pitches each inning and acknowledged the system’s general criticism — it awards higher and lower strikes that human umpires generally do not — but overall they didn’t have any major qualms with the electronically enabled strike zone.

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Next step, umpires wearing AR glasses showing the strike zone and the ball? So cricket, tennis, football, rugby, baseball all now have computer-aided review. Any major sports that need it which don’t have it? (Side note: observe the assumption in the story that baseball umpires are always male.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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