Start Up No.1,112: the UK’s diptel problem, how many USB-C cables?, TurboTax screws the poor for more, Apple seeks exclusive podcasts, and more

Yes, how did people manage before Visicalc, the first “killer app”? CC-licensed photo by Betsy Weber on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Timing OK, Jason? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How tech firms make us feel like we own their apps – and how that benefits them • The Conversation

Melody Zou:


People who become heavy users of the apps they download can develop deep relationships with these services, so deep that they take on what we call “psychological ownership” of them. This means they perceive each app as something that belongs just to them and has effectively become an extension of themselves. After using it frequently and adjusting the settings to their liking, it becomes “my app”, even though their rights to use the service and transfer their data are actually restricted and their accounts can be terminated at any time.

Psychological ownership can benefit the companies because it leads users to take on valuable extra roles. In the real world, companies have long pushed for shoppers to give feedback, recommend their products and help other shoppers. App “owners” are willingly doing all of this in the digital sphere and often with more expertise and commitment than traditional consumers.

My colleagues and I studied this phenomenon for users of music streaming apps such as Spotify and QQ Music and found that they went the extra mile in four ways. They provided services such as answering the queries of other users on internet forums or offering other information that would enrich the experience of users. They improved the app by giving the company feedback or taking part in the app’s governance. They advocated for the app by championing it in public or defending it against critics. And they financed the service by paying a premium fee or even donating money.


(Zou is assistant professor of Information Systems and Management at Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick.)
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40 years later, lessons from the rise and quick decline of the first ‘killer app’ • WSJ

Christopher Mims:


VisiCalc was the first piece of software that was so popular that it drove people to buy computers just to run it. A 1984 article for PC Magazine noted: “People entered computer stores to purchase VisiCalc and something to run it on.” At the time, VisiCalc cost $100, but the Apple II to run it could set you back $2,000 or more—much more. The revenue of VisiCalc’s publisher, which was almost entirely attributable to VisiCalc itself, mushroomed from virtually nothing in 1979 to more than $40 million in 1983, says Edward Esber, who was VP of marketing at the company.

This was the first lesson of VisiCalc—that the dawn of a new platform is when empires are built. In this case, the shift was from the paper ledgers that accountants had used for centuries, to their digital equivalent on the PC.

The PC was arguably the first modern tech platform—that is, a thing that had value because it enabled many different types of software and services—and much of what happened next became typical of every computing platform that has come since.

Unfortunately for Messrs. Bricklin and Frankston, the second lesson of VisiCalc was that a killer app doesn’t guarantee enduring success. The software might have been the first tech victim of what academic Clayton Christensen would later call “disruptive innovation”—when a smaller company outflanks an incumbent by targeting an overlooked market.

Mitch Kapor, who worked for VisiCalc’s publisher as a product manager, left the company and began working on his own spreadsheet program. Instead of creating it for the Apple II, Mr. Kapor put his money on another horse: the brand-new IBM PC. Released in 1983, his software—Lotus 1-2-3—took the world by storm on a scale that even VisiCalc’s success couldn’t have foretold.


Terrific piece.
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Kim Darroch was a victim of the UK government’s huge email problem • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:


Intelligent Protection International Limited, a private security firm, was asked to conduct an investigation to pinpoint the source of a leak of commercial information – allegedly perpetrated by a staff member– to a company working with the [unnamed UK government] department. “We were gobsmacked when we did our investigation,” says Alex Bomberg, chief executive officer of Intelligent Protection International.

Bomberg’s company produced a 300-page report – a redacted version of the recommendations of which we have seen – laying bare the issues with how the civil service handles sensitive data such as diplomatic briefings and cables. All routine public service information is classed as “Official” – one of three security classifications set out by the government. Official documents can include “routine international relations and diplomatic activities.

However, particularly delicate information can be labelled “Official – Sensitive”, which is meant to involve additional measures to limit the “need to know”. That additional marking is deployed to head off the risk of such information being stolen, lost or published by journalists because it “could have more damaging consequences,” official advice on classification explains.

According to The Mail on Sunday, which first reported the contents of Darroch’s diplomatic cables, the documents leaked last week were labelled “Official – Sensitive”.

It turns out that these labels are expected to do a lot of work. One of the main concerns Intelligent Protection International raised in its report was the principle of “delegated access” to email accounts of the highest-ranking officials in the civil service.

In short, that means that staff would be allowed to access an official’s inbox in order to triage emails and deal with problems.


I thought that diplomatic cables were classified as “Eyes Only” rather than “Official – Sensitive“. But email, and the need to triage it, makes a mockery of that.
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How many kinds of USB-C™ to USB-C™ cables are there? • Benson Leung


tl;dr: There are six. Unfortunately it’s very confusing to the end user.

Classic USB from the 1.1, 2.0, to 3.0 generations using USB-A and USB-B connectors have a really nice property in that cables were directional and plugs and receptacles were physically distinct to specify a different capability. A USB 3.0 capable USB-B plug was physically larger than a 2.0 plug and would not fit into a USB 2.0-only receptacle. For the end user, this meant that as long as they have a cable that would physically connect to both the host and the device, the system would function properly, as there is only ever one kind of cable that goes from one A plug to a particular flavor of B plug.

Does the same hold for USB-C™?

Sadly, the answer is no.


Oh, USB-C. The solution: clearer labelling. The problem: cable manufacturers aren’t interested in better labelling.
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Trump’s tax law threatened TurboTax’s profits, so the company started charging the disabled, the unemployed and students • ProPublica

Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel:


The 2017 tax overhaul vastly expanded the number of people who could file simplified tax returns, a boon to millions of Americans.

But the new law directly threatened the lucrative business of Intuit, the maker of TurboTax.

Although the company draws in customers with the promise of a “free” product, its fortunes depend on getting as many customers as possible to pay. It had been regularly charging $100 or more for returns that included itemized deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations. Under the new law, many wealthier taxpayers would no longer be filing that form, qualifying them to use the company’s free software.

Intuit executives came up with a way to preserve the company’s hefty profit margins: It began charging more low-income people. Which ones? Individuals with disabilities, the unemployed and people who owe money on student loans, all of whom use tax forms that TurboTax previously included for free. The shift was described to ProPublica by two people familiar with the process…

…Under a 2002 deal with the government, most Americans are supposed to be able to file their taxes for free as long as they make under $66,000 a year. In return, the IRS has agreed not to offer its own free service.

But, as ProPublica has been reporting, Intuit has steered eligible customers away from the truly free version, aggressively marketing products that are called “free” even though many customers end up paying.


An unusual case of regulatory capture: Intuit squirms away from any attempt to lock down what it does. It really is past time for the US government to take over the process.
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‘Just a matter of when’: the $20bn plan to power Singapore with Australian solar • The Guardian

Adam Morton:


Known as Sun Cable, it is promised to be the world’s largest solar farm. If developed as planned, a 10-gigawatt-capacity array of panels will be spread across 15,000 hectares and be backed by battery storage to ensure it can supply power around the clock.

Overhead transmission lines will send electricity to Darwin and plug into the NT grid. But the bulk would be exported via a high-voltage direct-current submarine cable snaking through the Indonesian archipelago to Singapore. The developers say it will be able to provide one-fifth of the island city-state’s electricity needs, replacing its increasingly expensive gas-fired power.

After 18 months in development, the $20bn Sun Cable development had a quiet coming out party in the Top End three weeks ago at a series of events held to highlight the NT’s solar potential. The idea has been embraced by the NT government and attracted the attention of the software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, who is considering involvement through his Grok Ventures private investment firm.

The NT plan follows a similarly ambitious proposal for the Pilbara, where another group of developers are working on an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant to power local industry and develop a green hydrogen manufacturing hub. On Friday, project developer Andrew Dickson announced the scale of the proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub had grown by more than a third, from 11GW to 15GW. “To our knowledge, it’s the largest wind-solar hybrid in the world,” he says.


Would be good if Australia shift from exporting coal to exporting solar energy. I thought DC was a bad idea for long-distance power transmission, but apparently not. Singapore generates all its own electricity at present – but 98% of that is from fossil fuels.
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Apple plans to bankroll original podcasts to fend off rivals • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw and Mark Gurman:


Executives at the company have reached out to media companies and their representatives to discuss buying exclusive rights to podcasts, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the conversations are preliminary. Apple has yet to outline a clear strategy, but has said it plans to pursue the kind of deals it didn’t make before.

Apple all but invented the podcasting business with the creation of a network that collects thousands of podcasts from across the internet in a feed on people’s phones, smartwatches and computers. The Apple Podcast app still accounts for anywhere from 50% to 70% of listening for most podcasts, according to industry executives.

The news sent shares of Spotify down as much as 2.7% to $150.09 in New York on Tuesday, marking the biggest intraday decline in three weeks. The stock had been up 36% this year through Monday’s close.

After years without making substantial changes to its podcasting business, which first launched in 2005, Apple has recently focused on upgrading its app and has added new tools for podcast makers.


Going to be a challenge for Spotify. Apple-only podcasts will have a lot more reach than Spotify-only podcasts, as the data suggests. Then the problem is how you get people to see them.
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Measles is killing more people in the DRC than Ebola—and faster • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:


Since January 2019, officials have recorded over 100,000 measles cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly in children, and nearly 2,000 have died. The figures surpass those of the latest Ebola outbreak in the country, which has tallied not quite 2,500 cases and 1,665 deaths since August 2018. The totals were noted by World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a speech today, July 15, at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Frankly, I am embarrassed to talk only about Ebola,” Dr. Tedros said (he goes by his first name). He gave the speech in response to two new developments in the Ebola outbreak. That is that two Ebola responders were murdered in their home in the DRC city of Beni and that officials on Sunday had identified the first case of Ebola in Goma, a DRC city of over one million at the border with Rwanda.


In case there’s anyone around who thought measles wasn’t deadly.
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Delta, Alaska, and American Airlines have all been sued over their cabin crew uniforms • Vox

Rae Nudson:


Delta is the latest airline to have flight attendants report health issues possibly related to their uniforms, and employees at the airline filed a lawsuit in May against the manufacturer, Lands’ End. But flight attendants have been battling health issues that have appeared after an airline instituted new uniforms for years. And for years, airlines have said their uniforms are safe.

Meanwhile, flight attendants and others are working to discover the cause of their symptoms and the identity and total number of chemicals present in their uniforms, all of which can be difficult to ascertain. Until the cause can be identified — or until airlines start listening to employees and moving quickly after their complaints — it’s likely employees will continue to face symptoms. And it’s likely that flight attendants will keep heading to court, where they’ve historically needed to go to get policy changed by their employers.

The problem was first reported after employees at Alaska Airlines got new uniforms toward the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011. Flight attendants began to report rashes and eye irritation, and documented hives, blisters, and scaly patches, according to a 2012 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report looking into the issue. In 2013, flight attendants at Alaska Airlines filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the uniforms, Twin Hill, and the airline recalled the uniforms in 2014. In October 2016, Twin Hill won the lawsuit, with the court claiming there was no reliable evidence the injuries were caused by the uniforms.

Then in 2016, shortly after flight attendants at American Airlines got new uniforms, also manufactured by Twin Hill, they began to show symptoms as well. Flight attendants reported rashes, blisters, open sores, and swelling.


I thought I had linked to this before, but couldn’t find any trace. This is a weird one; the link between uniform and illness seems undeniable, yet the cause evades discovery.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,112: the UK’s diptel problem, how many USB-C cables?, TurboTax screws the poor for more, Apple seeks exclusive podcasts, and more

  1. “Then the problem is how you get people to see them.”
    This is not how podcasts work.
    I’ll show myself out…

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