Start Up No.1,114: 5G can’t stand the heat, your spying browser (extensions), Libra backpedalling begins, the plan to mine science, and more


Properly measuring your quality of sleep takes more than an app and a smartwatch. CC-licensed photo by Woody Thrower on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. No more sleeps till the weekend. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The sad truth about sleep-tracking devices and apps • The New York Times

Brian Chen:

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I wore an Apple Watch, since it is one of the most popular health-tracking devices. I also downloaded a top-rated app called AutoSleep, which uses the Apple Watch’s sensors to follow my movements and determine when I fell asleep and woke up. (The Apple Watch lacks a built-in sleep tracker.) Here’s what AutoSleep gathered on my sleep habits.

But the excitement ended there. Ultimately, the technology did not help me sleep more. It didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know, which is that I average about five and a half hours of slumber a night. And the data did not help me answer what I should do about my particular sleep problems. In fact, I’ve felt grumpier since I started these tests.

That mirrored the conclusions of a recent study from Rush University Medical College and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Researchers there noticed patients complaining about sleep data collected by apps and devices from Nike, Apple, Fitbit and others.

In their study, the researchers warned that sleep-tracking tech could provide inaccurate data and worsen insomnia by making people obsessed with achieving perfect slumber, a condition they called orthosomnia. It was one of the latest pieces of research supporting the idea that health apps don’t necessarily make people healthier.

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I’ve never quite understood what the sleep apps are meant to be tracking, because as he says, what can you do about it? Nobody really knows.
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Facebook is backpedaling from its ambitious vision for Libra • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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Facebook now seems to recognize its original vision was a non-starter with regulators. So this week Marcus sketched out a new vision for Libra—one in which the Libra Association will shoulder significant responsibility for ensuring compliance with laws relating to money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes.

Facebook’s new stance addresses some of the questions I raised in last week’s Libra feature. But it also raises new questions that Facebook will need to answer in the coming months. Marcus said Wednesday that the Libra Association will require regulatory compliance by Libra-based service providers, but he didn’t explain how it will do so. However it’s done, there’s likely to be an inherent tension between improving regulatory compliance and Facebook’s other goals to build an open network and make it accessible to marginalized people around the world.

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What a very bad day at work taught me about building Stack Overflow’s community • Stack Overflow Blog

Sara Chipps:

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About three months in, on a Friday afternoon, we introduced a new company-wide policy that I felt was relatively benign. What happened next was that, from my point of view, the engineering team completely lost it. No one agreed with this policy, and they made it known over seemingly hundreds of Slack pings. After an afternoon of going back and forth, I walked away feeling emotionally drained. What had happened to my amazing coworkers that were so kind and wonderful? I felt attacked and diminished. It seemed people weren’t valuing my work or my judgment.

I went home for the weekend and stewed in my frustration. I replayed everything that happened in my head and each time got more frustrated with the way people reacted. When Sunday rolled around, I decided I wanted to look back at our Slack conversations and see which one of my coworkers was being the rudest and the most unreasonable. I wanted to give them direct feedback that they had hurt my feelings.

As I went back through that Friday afternoon chat log, I was shocked to see that no one had been hurling insults. There was no one saying mean things about me or attacking my efficacy directly. In fact, what I found was that people had some well put together arguments about why they felt this policy was a bad idea. The entire engineering department definitely made their criticisms known, but I didn’t find people questioning my ability as a manager, throwing around insults, or saying anything that that illustrated why I was feeling so targeted.

That was when something became crystal clear: my coworkers hadn’t become monsters, they were still the kind and caring people I thought they were. The monster in this case is not one person, it was created when lots of people, even with great intentions, publicly disagreed with you at the same time. Even kind feedback can come off as caustic and mean when there is a mob of people behind it. No matter how nicely they say it, when a large group of people you really respect publicly challenge something you’ve done it can feel like a personal attack.

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The plan to mine the world’s research papers • Nature

Priyanka Pulla:

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Over the past year, [American technologist Carl] Malamud has — without asking publishers — teamed up with Indian researchers to build a gigantic store of text and images extracted from 73 million journal articles dating from 1847 up to the present day. The cache, which is still being created, will be kept on a 576-terabyte storage facility at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. “This is not every journal article ever written, but it’s a lot,” Malamud says. It’s comparable to the size of the core collection in the Web of Science database, for instance. Malamud and his JNU collaborator, bioinformatician Andrew Lynn, call their facility the JNU data depot.

No one will be allowed to read or download work from the repository, because that would breach publishers’ copyright. Instead, Malamud envisages, researchers could crawl over its text and data with computer software, scanning through the world’s scientific literature to pull out insights without actually reading the text.

The unprecedented project is generating much excitement because it could, for the first time, open up vast swathes of the paywalled literature for easy computerized analysis. Dozens of research groups already mine papers to build databases of genes and chemicals, map associations between proteins and diseases, and generate useful scientific hypotheses. But publishers control — and often limit — the speed and scope of such projects, which typically confine themselves to abstracts, not full text. Researchers in India, the United States and the United Kingdom are already making plans to use the JNU store instead.

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WeWork co-founder has cashed out at least $700m via sales, loans • WSJ

Eliot Brown, Maureen Farrell and Anupreeta Das:

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WeWork Cos. co-founder Adam Neumann has cashed out more than $700 million from the company ahead of its initial public offering through a mix of stock sales and debt, people familiar with the matter said—an unusually large sum given that startup founders typically wait for the IPO to monetize their holdings.

Mr. Neumann, who is chief executive of the shared office-space giant and remains its single largest shareholder, over several years has sold some of his stake in the company and borrowed against some of his holdings, the people said.

The exact size of Mr. Neumann’s current ownership in WeWork couldn’t be learned. He recently set up a family office to invest the proceeds and has begun to hire financial professionals to run it, they said.

Investors in startups have generally frowned upon founders who cash out large chunks of shares ahead of a public-markets debut, because it raises questions about their confidence in the company. On the other hand, people close to Mr. Neumann say, his borrowings against some of his WeWork shares indicate that he is bullish on the company’s long-term prospects.

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It also indicates that the people who lent him the money won’t have any collateral to recall their loan against if WeWork turns to crap.
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We tested 5G across America. It’s crazy fast—and a hot mess • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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Eager to test out a technology that’s been more hyped than flavored sparkling water, I embarked on a 5G expedition from Denver to Atlanta to Chicago to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I mostly used the new, $1,300 Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, one of the first 5G phones and the only one available across all the carriers. I also tested the LG V50 ThinQ 5G on Sprint’s network; Verizon has a version but I didn’t test it.

After nearly 120 tests, more than 12 city miles walked and a couple of big blisters, I can report that 5G is fasten-your-seat-belt fast…when you can find it. And you’re standing outdoors. And the temperature is just right.

As my findings show, 5G is absolutely not ready for you. But like any brand new network technology, it provides a glimpse of the future…

…In Atlanta, where it was 90ºF the day I visited, I could run only one or two 5G download tests before the phone would overheat and switch to 4G. When that happened, I’d head back to the car and hold the phone to the air vent. In Chicago, another day in the 90s, I had to wait until the sun went down to finish my Netflix download tests. In New York on an 83-degree day, I went with the ice-cooler trick: a minute or two in the cooler, and 5G switches back on.

At times when the 5G would stop working, my infrared thermometer showed the back surface of the phone was over 100ºF.

“With 5G, data is transmitted at higher quantities and speeds, which causes the processor to consume more energy,” the Samsung spokeswoman said.

It isn’t atypical for a phone’s processors or modems to reduce functionality when they are heavily taxed or overheated. I put the phone through some intensive tests—although nothing I couldn’t imagine any power user doing. I was surprised, though, when in my tests even a simple download on a normal summer day could overheat the phone and sever the 5G connection.

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Grindr wanted to change the queer world. What went wrong? • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac:

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Among the most frustrating things about [new Chinese owner Scott] Chen, according to three former employees, was his seeming lack of interest in anything beyond Grindr’s main app. Although the company had made strides since 2017 to develop a media brand and a wider audience than just gay men, he seemed monomaniacally focused on numbers and was hell-bent on attaining 4 million daily active users.

Former Grindr employees told BuzzFeed News that Chen spent a lot of his time working with the company’s Beijing engineers developing small features and changes to the app that he hoped would drive more engagement, and that he often failed to communicate them to the LA team. Two former employees said Chen also seemed to have little desire to fix the toxicity and harassment problems that plagued the app; he didn’t want to touch things that seemed to be working. “His archaic view of things is that sex sells,” said one, noting that anything that detracted from encouraging hookups was seen as a distraction.

“He thought [Grindr’s in-house digital magazine] Into was a social media play and didn’t realize it was an independent news outlet,” one former employee said. Another recalled trying to explain to Chen that media businesses take time to develop audiences and revenue streams and that there would be no quick and easy way to make Into profitable. Chen didn’t seem to listen, they said.

Former Grindr employees said this lack of interest manifested itself in other ways as well, often in decision-making that came off as callous or inappropriate. After a round of layoffs last year, former employees said, Chen removed a cluster of desks in the company’s cavernous office to install his own fitness center. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that anyone could use the gym, but two former employees said no one did and it was widely understood to be for his use.

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My browser, the spy: how extensions slurped up browsing histories from 4m users • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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DataSpii begins with browser extensions—available mostly for Chrome but in more limited cases for Firefox as well—that, by Google’s account, had as many as 4.1 million users. These extensions collected the URLs, webpage titles, and in some cases the embedded hyperlinks of every page that the browser user visited. Most of these collected Web histories were then published by a fee-based service called Nacho Analytics, which markets itself as “God mode for the Internet” and uses the tag line “See Anyone’s Analytics Account.”

Web histories may not sound especially sensitive, but a subset of the published links led to pages that are not protected by passwords—but only by a hard-to-guess sequence of characters (called tokens) included in the URL. Thus, the published links could allow viewers to access the content at these pages. (Security practitioners have long discouraged the publishing of sensitive information on pages that aren’t password protected, but the practice remains widespread.)

According to the researcher who discovered and extensively documented the problem, this non-stop flow of sensitive data over the past seven months has resulted in the publication of links to:

• Home and business surveillance videos hosted on Nest and other security services
• Tax returns, billing invoices, business documents, and presentation slides posted to, or hosted on, Microsoft OneDrive, Intuit.com, and other online services
• Vehicle identification numbers of recently bought automobiles, along with the names and addresses of the buyers
• Patient names, the doctors they visited, and other details listed by DrChrono, a patient care cloud platform that contracts with medical services
• Travel itineraries hosted on Priceline, Booking.com, and airline websites
• Facebook Messenger attachments and Facebook photos, even when the photos were set to be private.

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Nacho Analytics turns out to have been grabbing data from tons of extensions, listed in the story.
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The challenges with single toggle buttons • UX Movement

Anthony Tseng:

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Many single toggle buttons fail at either showing the current state or making the unselected option visible. They’re challenging to get right because users only have one button to switch states. Should a single toggle button display the state or the second option?

Many designers make the mistake of displaying the state on the toggle button. This practice is terrible because it hides the second option from users. They have no way of knowing that it’s combined with the state.

In the example above, the action to follow someone combines the state and the second option into a single toggle button. When users press “follow,” the button turns into “following,” but the unfollow option isn’t visible. The user has to press the “following” button to unfollow someone, which isn’t clear.

Sometimes users won’t see “following.” Instead, they’ll only see the “unfollow” option. Now the user isn’t sure whether they’re following this person or not. They have to assume that the unfollow state means they’re “following” that person.

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Really good points, which aren’t obvious until you start looking around and noticing them.
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Being a woman online isn’t just surviving the abuse, it’s fielding the reply guys • HuffPost UK

Jess Brammar:

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Recently, a colleague of mine, Chris, tweeted an innocuous comment about one of those niggly irritants of modern life. “We need to have a national conversation about the lack of plug sockets on trains,” he wrote. He received one reply, four ‘likes’ and no one else was interested.

Chris doesn’t really feel that strongly about plug sockets on trains – or, if he does, he’s never mentioned it to me. But I’d asked him to tweet that pretty inoffensive statement as a form of social experiment, because those were the exact words I had tweeted a few weeks before on a 7am train from London to Salford. But unlike Chris, I received a flood of replies. 

If you’re a woman, you’ll probably get what I’m talking about immediately. If you’re a man, you probably won’t. I’ve tried to explain this phenomenon to male colleagues and friends countless times, but, like so many things, it’s hard to see it, let alone understand it, unless it happens to you…

…alongside the straightforward abuse that is by now publicly acknowledged – and to the majority of the population, wholly unacceptable – there is something more complex, less offensive, but incredibly exhausting nonetheless. Sometimes it’s so subtle you barely notice it but it’s always there, always wearing, and just reserved for us women.

It is, broadly, the general sense that men have the right to weigh in on any statement made by a woman, because their opinion is as welcome, relevant and wanted as the original point, something Mashable has termed “the curse of the reply guy”. A non-stop unsolicited stream of pedantry and condescension.

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And wow, it really is.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,114: 5G can’t stand the heat, your spying browser (extensions), Libra backpedalling begins, the plan to mine science, and more

  1. An anecdote on the dichotomy between Mobile and Legacy ecosystems: I wanted to make a custom ringtone for my phone (not that I’ve got to force my music on others, but with so many Xiaomis around me, we’re back to the Nokia area and don’t know whose phone is ringing).

    I’ve got the MP3 (Archer’s title song), need to prune it (get rid of the shrill trumpets) and loop it.

    Because I’m old, I google up how to do it on my desktop: Audacity. Cue about an hour trying to work with that. Give up. Google up how to do it on Android. Downloading the app took more time than cutting my mp3. Xiaomi’s looping it on its own.

    And I’m an above-average user. Regular Joes need those spiffy Mobile ecosystems in legacy (desktop/laptop) PCs !

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