Start Up No.1,147: new iPhones in review, an elevator to the Moon!, WeWork delays IPO, the Britons still off the internet, and more


It seems like smartphone prices have peaked – and the top is coming down. CC-licensed photo by Craig Murphy on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

IPhone 11 and 11 Pro review: thinking differently in the golden age of smartphones • The New York Times

Brian Chen:

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I tested the new iPhones for a week, starting with the $700 entry-level iPhone 11 with a 6.1-inch display, which I used as my primary phone for three days. Then I switched to the iPhone 11 Pro, the $1,000 model with a 5.8-inch screen, for two days. And then finally, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the $1,100 model with a jumbo 6.5-inch screen, for another two days.

Then I compared the results with my notes and photos from testing the iPhone X in 2017. What I found was that the iPhone 11 was better, but not profoundly so.

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Also worth reading: John Gruber essentially saying the same thing, and app maker Halide essentially saying the same thing.
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Have flagship smartphone prices peaked? • CCS Insight

Ben Wood:

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Smartphone makers have been testing the economic rule of supply and demand for the past decade, seemingly defying conventional wisdom in consumer electronics products by raising prices. Greater utility and the constant of use smartphones combined to grow the value of devices to customers. But it seems that top phone-makers are learning that no tree grows to heaven, as prices beyond the psychological threshold of $1,000 have created sticker shock among some consumers.

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 11 at its annual product event last week largely centered on incremental improvements such as better camera and battery life, but the company’s decision to lower the price of its base flagship smartphone caught our eye (see Instant Insight: Apple Unveils New Hardware, Competitive Subscription Services). The iPhone 11 will cost $699 in the US. A year ago, Apple introduced the iPhone XR at $749. It’s a subtle, but interesting move that sees Apple shifting its “mid-range” iPhone back to a price of $699, where it previously resided with the iPhone 8.

Apple’s decision to lower pricing can be seen as an acknowledgement that it has tested the upper limits of consumer acceptance. At a time when the company wants to expand its number of customers as it builds out its ecosystem of content and services, it’s sensible that it slightly brought down the barriers for consumers to get their hands on the new device.

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I think he’s right: Apple has tested the peak for the normal factor. Sure, there are people who will pay extra for the novelty of a folding phone, but Vertu had a market for a while too.
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A Moon space elevator is actually feasible and inexpensive: study • Observer

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In a paper published on the online research archive arXiv in August, Columbia astronomy students Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford proposed the idea of a “lunar space elevator,” which is exactly what it sounds like—a very long elevator connecting the moon and our planet.

The concept of a moon elevator isn’t new. In the 1970s, similar ideas were floated in science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, for example) and by academics like Jerome Pearson and Yuri Artsutanov.

But the Columbia study differs from previous proposal in an important way: instead of building the elevator from the Earth’s surface (which is impossible with today’s technology), it would be anchored on the moon and stretch some 200,000 miles toward Earth until hitting the geostationary orbit height (about 22,236 miles above sea level), at which objects move around Earth in lockstep with the planet’s own rotation…

…After doing the math, the researchers estimated that the simplest version of the lunar elevator would be a cable thinner than a pencil and weigh about 88,000 pounds, which is within the payload capacity of the next-generation NASA or SpaceX rocket.

The whole project may cost a few billion dollars, which is “within the whim of one particularly motivated billionaire,” said Penoyre.

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Whimsical space elevators. It’s what the 21st century promised.
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WeWork delays IPO after frosty investor response • Reuters

Joshua Franklin, Anirban Sen:

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WeWork owner The We Company has postponed its initial public offering (IPO), walking away from preparations to launch it this month after a lackluster response from investors to its plans.

The US office-sharing startup was getting ready to launch an investor road show for its IPO this week before making the last-minute decision on Monday to stand down, people familiar with the matter said.

The company has been under pressure to proceed with the stock market flotation to secure funding for its operations.

In the run-up to the launch of its IPO, We Company has faced concerns about its corporate governance standards, as well as the sustainability of its business model, which relies on a mix of long-term liabilities and short-term revenue, and how such a model would weather an economic downturn…

…Were We Company to have pressed on with the IPO at such a low valuation, it would have represented a major turning point in the growth over the last decade of the venture capital industry, which has led to the rise of startups such as Uber Technologies Inc (UBER.N), Snap Inc (SNAP.N) and Airbnb Inc.

It would have meant that We Company would be valued at less than the $12.8bn in equity it has raised since it was founded in 2010, according to data provider Crunchbase. And it would have been a blow to its biggest backer, Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, at a time when it is trying to amass $108bn from investors for its second Vision Fund.

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“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

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What the ctenophore says about the evolution of intelligence • Aeon Essays

Douglas Fox:

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The ctenophore was already known for having a relatively advanced nervous system; but these first experiments by [Leonid] Moroz showed that its nerves were constructed from a different set of molecular building blocks – different from any other animal – using ‘a different chemical language’, says Moroz: these animals are ‘aliens of the sea’.

If Moroz is right, then the ctenophore represents an evolutionary experiment of stunning proportions, one that has been running for more than half a billion years. This separate pathway of evolution – a sort of Evolution 2.0 – has invented neurons, muscles and other specialised tissues, independently from the rest of the animal kingdom, using different starting materials.

This animal, the ctenophore, provides clues to how evolution might have gone if not for the advent of vertebrates, mammals and humans, who came to dominate the ecosystems of Earth. It sheds light on a profound debate that has raged for decades: when it comes to the present-day face of life on Earth, how much of it happened by pure accident, and how much was inevitable from the start?

If evolution were re-run here on Earth, would intelligence arise a second time? And if it did, might it just as easily turn up in some other, far-flung branch of the animal tree? The ctenophore offers some tantalising hints by showing just how different from one another brains can be. Brains are the crowning case of convergent evolution – the process by which unrelated species evolve similar traits to navigate the same kind of world. Humans might have evolved an unprecedented intellect, but the ctenophore suggests that we might not be alone. The tendency of complex nervous systems to evolve is probably universal – not just on Earth, but also in other worlds.

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Them and the octopi? Seems like there’s a lot of super-intelligent alien-like species under the sea.
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Fossil fuel divestment has ‘zero’ climate impact, says Bill Gates • Financial Times

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson and Billy Nauman:

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Climate activists are wasting their time lobbying investors to ditch fossil fuel stocks, according to Bill Gates, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder who is one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists.

Those who want to change the world would do better to put their money and energy behind the disruptive technologies that slow carbon emissions and help people adapt to a warming world, Mr Gates told the Financial Times.

“Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions. It’s not like you’ve capital-starved [the] people making steel and gasoline,” he said. “I don’t know the mechanism of action where divestment [keeps] emissions [from] going up every year. I’m just too damn numeric.”

Pension funds, the Church of England and even a vehicle for the Rockefeller family’s oil fortune are among a growing group of investors that have divested their fossil fuel holdings in recent years, driven by a belief that finance can be a tool to combat climate change.

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You only have to think for a moment to realise Gates is right. If an organisation divests its holdings, they don’t vanish; they’re simply owned by someone else, who might try to make those fossil fuel companies extract even more. The sensible thing is to try to force the companies to divest; or, as Gates says, put money into disruptive tech. (In which case it could make sense to divest from fossil fuels, but only as a way to get capital.)
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Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag • YouTube

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Before Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, before Chuck Jones and Jackie Chan, there was Buster Keaton, one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. And nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, we’re still learning from him.

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Just thought it would be nice to have something quite different. This is eternal.
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Almost one-fifth of Britons ‘do not use internet’ • BBC News

Mark Ward:

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Almost 20% of British people are not using the internet, a survey suggests. The detailed in-home survey of almost 2,000 Britons found that 18% described themselves as non-users.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII), which carried out the research, said people falling into the category tended to be older and poorer than frequent net users.

The size of the group presented a “dilemma” for any government trying to reach and support them, said the OII. “Non-users are older, proportionately less well-educated and have lower incomes,” said Dr Grant Blank, survey research fellow at the OII, who oversaw the project.

Non-users, said Dr Blank, were those who did not go online via any means – either phone or computer. The proportion of those falling into this category grew as people aged, he said.

The figure of 18% is higher than other official measures of non-users, he said, because of the way the OII sampled the UK population. Figures gathered by the Office for National Statistics suggest about 7.4% of the population are non-users but this figure is drawn from data gathered for its Labour Force Survey.

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This is still a pretty big number. When I spoke to Martha Lane Fox, then the UK’s “digital champion”, ten years ago, the figure was about 10m adults and 1.6m children.
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The startup that manipulated data to get a miracle drug to market • WSJ

Denise Roland:

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The startup had something incredible: a cure for babies with a deadly neurological disease. Last year, the company was snapped up by pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, and by this past May, its drug was the most expensive on the market.

In just a few years, the company, AveXis, morphed from a handful of hospital-based researchers into one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most stunning success stories.

But in the hurry to fulfill the drug’s promise, AveXis manipulated data that went into the drug’s approval, Novartis and the Food and Drug Administration now say.

And some former AveXis employees say there were other stumbling blocks, separate from the manipulation cited by the FDA. They say the company struggled to manage a fast ramp-up of its research and manufacturing operations. They describe a race to develop the drug that, at times, yielded mistakes, including misstated dosing figures from early-stage trials of the drug.

AveXis went through a “fundamental shift in capabilities,” a Novartis spokesman said. He said it “evolved from an academic setting to a commercial organization with leaders who had a deeper understanding of the requirements of the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA approval process.” The spokesman said new leadership established processes “in line with the needs for a company that was gearing for product approval and commercialization.”

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Not quite Theranos; there’s an actual product here. Just not as efficacious as hoped. Quite a common story in biotech, and especially in gene therapy, which has been tomorrow’s technology for about three decades now.
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Four reasons why the BBC is failing to explain the news • openDemocracy

Mark Oliver:

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People in the UK look to the BBC to explain many of the challenges facing the country today. Yet most are under informed about a raft of issues ranging from: Brexit to immigration policy. So why is the BBC failing in its “mission to explain”? In short, it has failed the necessary precursor – the mission to understand.

Our commentariat has never been better supplied with facts, and yet we have never had such a paucity of public knowledge around complex issues. To counter popular misconceptions, the BBC needs to go beyond fact checking and provide more context. The lack of depth in its coverage of crucial stories is leading to an increasingly partisan general public, and, consequently, a failure to hold those with power to account.

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It’s an interesting piece (for the reasons, you’ll have to click through; it’s worthwhile) but the question is, who’s going to listen?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,147: new iPhones in review, an elevator to the Moon!, WeWork delays IPO, the Britons still off the internet, and more

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