Start Up No.1,150: Facebook zaps more data-sucking apps, bitcoin for.. aliens?, Google claims quantum leap, WeWork’s CEO under pressure, Apple Arcade gets replay, and more


Recognise it? The hot summer meant English people consumed more of it. CC-licensed photo by Uwe Hermann on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Begin again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s suspension of ‘tens of thousands’ of apps reveals wider privacy issues • The New York Times

Kate Conger, Gabriel J.X. Dance and Mike Isaac:

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Facebook said on Friday that it had suspended tens of thousands of apps for improperly sucking up users’ personal information and other transgressions, a tacit admission that the scale of its data privacy issues was far larger than it had previously acknowledged.

The social network said in a blog post that an investigation it began in March 2018 — following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British consultancy, had retrieved and used people’s Facebook information without their permission — had resulted in the suspension of “tens of thousands” of apps that were associated with about 400 developers. That was far bigger than the last number that Facebook had disclosed of 400 app suspensions in August 2018.

The extent of how many apps Facebook had cut off was revealed in court filings that were unsealed later on Friday by a state court in Boston, as part of an investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general into the technology company. The documents showed that Facebook had suspended 69,000 apps. Of those, the majority were terminated because the developers did not cooperate with Facebook’s investigation; 10,000 were flagged for potentially misappropriating personal data from Facebook users.

The disclosures about app suspensions renew questions about whether people’s personal information on Facebook is secure, even after the company has been under fire for more than a year for its privacy practices.

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I had to use Facebook a lot over the past two weeks, and realised that I really don’t like using it. The interface is noisy, it’s confusing, and working out whether what you’ve written is private, semi-private, public, or what – always with the knowledge that it could be screenshotted anyway – makes it a viper’s nest if you’re saying anything that you might not want made totally public. By contrast, Twitter’s a doddle: flat, and what you say is public. Couldn’t be simpler.
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English consuming more sugar despite tax and anti-obesity drive • The Guardian

Denis Campbell:

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Experts are warning that the nation’s increasingly sweet tooth will worsen the damage already being done to public health by sugar, such as through diabetes and tooth decay.

The alarming trend of rising overall consumption of what critics call the “pure, white and deadly” substance is revealed in a report by Public Health England (PHE). It shows that the sugar tax on soft drinks introduced in 2017 has proved unexpectedly successful and has led to a 28.8% fall in the amount of sugar contained in such beverages.

In addition, the sugar content of yoghurt and fromage frais has fallen by 10.3%In breakfast cereals it has fallen 8.5%, in cakes 4.8% and in sweet spreads and sauces 4.6%.

However, many manufacturers are defying the government’s plea to cut sugar by 20% by next year – which is a key element of its campaign to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity. Firms have done the opposite of what ministers asked them to do in 2016 and increased the amount of sugar they put in sweets and confectionery by 0.6% and in puddings by 0.5%.

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Seems a big part of the increased consumption was from ice creams during the hot summer. The UK government tried to suppress this report; it demonstrates the opposite of what Boris Johnson had wanted to suggest, that “sin taxes” make no difference. By the way, much of his run for PM was funded by companies making money from sugar.
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Google chief Sundar Pichai warns against rushing into AI regulation • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

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In an interview, Mr Pichai suggested looking to existing laws to govern how AI is used “rather than assuming that everything you have to do is new”.

When new regulations are required, they should be applied to particular sectors and industries, such as healthcare and energy, he said, rather than through a blanket vetting of algorithms, as some politicians have suggested.

“It is such a broad cross-cutting technology, so it’s important to look at [regulation] more in certain vertical situations,” Mr Pichai said.

“There are areas where we need to do the research before we know what are the right kinds of approaches we need to take,” he said, citing aspects of AI that have caught politicians’ attention, including bias, safety and explainability.

“Rather than rushing into it in a way that prevents innovation and research, you actually need to solve some of the difficult problems.”

Mr Pichai spoke after meeting European politicians including Finnish prime minister, Antti Rinne. The Google chief unveiled a series of announcements, including 18 new clean energy deals, a €3bn investment to expand its data centres across Europe and a $2m grant to train European workers in digital skills.

After attacks from regulators across Europe and around the world over allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and privacy infringement, Mr Pichai hopes to get ahead of any crackdown on AI.

“We are for sure definitely approaching things more deliberately than before,” he said. “Over the past few years, all of us have learnt that technology can have unintended consequences.” After publishing a set of AI principles last year, Mr Pichai said he would be “happy to evolve them over time as we gain more insights both internally and from externally”.

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Global premium market declines 6% YoY in Q2 2019 • Counterpoint Research

Varun Mishra:

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Apple held its market share but declined 6% YoY in the segment during the quarter. The OEM grew 9% YoY in NAM (North America), but China remains a challenge as it declined 33% YoY in the region. Competitive pressure continues to increase in China with the rise of local players, especially, Huawei. Apple’s buyback programs and other marketing activities are working in reversing the trend of growing holding periods.

However, the lack of a 5G model in the newly launched iPhone 11 series is likely to increase holding periods again. As a result, we expect Apple to regain momentum in H2 2020, after the launch of a 5G device, while in the short-term demand will be sluggish. Looking at the market in terms of price bands, Apple grew the fastest within the US$600-$800 price band as the iPhone XR continues to do well.

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Google claims to have reached quantum supremacy • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia and Richard Waters:

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A paper by Google’s researchers seen by the FT, that was briefly posted earlier this week on a Nasa website before being removed, claimed that their processor was able to perform a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today’s most advanced classical computer, known as Summit, approximately 10,000 years.

The researchers said this meant the “quantum supremacy”, when quantum computers carry out calculations that had previously been impossible, had been achieved.

“This dramatic speed-up relative to all known classical algorithms provides an experimental realisation of quantum supremacy on a computational task and heralds the advent of a much-anticipated computing paradigm,” the authors wrote.

“To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.”

The system can only perform a single, highly technical calculation, according to the researchers, and the use of quantum machines to solve practical problems is still years away.

But the Google researchers called it “a milestone towards full-scale quantum computing”. They also predicted that the power of quantum machines would expand at a “double exponential rate”, compared to the exponential rate of Moore’s Law, which has driven advances in silicon chips in the first era of computing.

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Probably going to be another decade before its applications are really clear. But a decade can pass quickly.
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Op ed: Hear me out … in a post-Area 51 world, bitcoin could be our best hope for alien interaction • Bitcoin Magazine

Brandon Green:

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Bitcoin will be the obvious way for us to unify our world under a common value system. Bitcoin will be how we transact with aliens.

There’s an added boost for Bitcoin too: it’s based on those 1s and 0s that would be the most basic way to communicate in the first place. Bitcoin is effectively math money and, therefore, would be the first choice for aliens to transact with as well.

Thanks to SegWit and the Lightning Network (or at least what the Lightning Network could eventually become), it would be possible not only for aliens to transact in bitcoin locally (local to Earth anyway), but also take it with them back to their own planets and create mesh Lightning Networks to trade there.

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Greene works for BTC Inc, which is based in Tennessee. My research suggests marijuana isn’t legal there yet, but I can’t really think of any better explanation.
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How to regulate Big Tech without breaking it up • MIT Technology Review

Angela Chen:

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Hal Singer, a senior fellow at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, agrees that breakups could be inefficient, but unlike Mayer-Schönberger, he doesn’t care about data inequality. So what if Google dominates because all their data makes their products the best? “If they win these ancillary markets on the merits, that’s a good thing,” he says.

So, says Singer, the problem isn’t that Google might get too good. Nor is it—as others, including Warren, have argued—that Google both hosts restaurant reviews as a platform and has its own reviews. That could be making things more efficient and lead to benefits. The problem, he says, is that Google edges out competitors like Yelp by giving its own reviews special treatment on its platform, even when they’re not as good.

Singer proposes a nondiscrimination principle that would prevent this. This is how cable channels are already regulated. Other companies worried about favoritism when Comcast started making content, but Congress didn’t break up the conglomerate. “They said, ‘We’re going to let you have a foot in the content space, but you can’t use your platform to artificially give a leg up to your own affiliated properties,’” Singer says. Now, independent networks can bring complaints to a neutral arbitrator that is responsible for making sure everyone is treated fairly.

Singer thinks this idea can apply to companies like Google and Amazon, too. The biggest concern is that tiny businesses won’t have power to take on the likes of Google, but he’s hopeful that if larger businesses sue—as in the case of the National Football League’s suit against Comcast, which was settled—norms will change to favor complaints from smaller brands.

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Favouritism of own services is the biggest problem in big companies.
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SoftBank turns against WeWork’s parent CEO Neumann: sources • Reuters

Anirban Sen and Joshua Franklin:

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Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, the biggest investor in WeWork owner The We Company, is exploring ways to replace Adam Neumann as chief executive of the US office-sharing start-up, four people familiar with the matter said on Sunday.

The rare showdown between SoftBank and one of its biggest investments comes after We Company postponed its initial public offering (IPO) last week, following pushback from perspective investors, not just over its widening losses, but also over Neumann’s unusually firm grip on the company.

This was a blow for SoftBank, which was hoping for We Company’s IPO to bolster its profits as it seeks to woo investors for its second $108bn Vision Fund. It invested in We Company at a $47bn valuation in January, yet stock market investor skepticism led to the startup considering a potential valuation in the IPO earlier this month of as low as $10bn, Reuters reported.

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Sweepstake on the number of days Neumann lasts. I’ll give it until the end of next week, ie the end of September.
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TiVo rolling out skippable pre-roll ads for retail DVRs • Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner:

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Opening up a new source of revenue and perhaps a can of customer ire, TiVo confirmed that it is rolling out a new product that inserts pre-roll ads in DVR recordings.

TiVo is testing it now, but it won’t be long before it becomes part of its retail platform. In addition to creating a new revenue stream, the new advertising inventory could help to subsidize the cost of TiVo’s retail hardware.

“DVR advertising is going to be a permanent part of the service,” a TiVo spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Light Reading. “We expect to be fully rolled-out to all eligible retail devices within 90 days.”

TiVo also confirmed that customers will be able to skip those pre-roll ads in much the same way they can skip commercials inserted in TV shows and movies recorded to the DVR. The change appears to be largely focused on retail devices running TiVo Experience 4, the company’s current-gen software and services platform.

“We’re dedicated to innovation that helps our customers stay in control of how, when, and what they watch,” the spokesperson said. “Advertising is an important part of every media business and TiVo is investing in new advertising experiences. We have designed our new DVR advertising units with the ability to ‘skip’ ads anytime a customer hits ‘skip.’ This is part of our ongoing commitment to bring our users the best media discovery experience possible.”

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Well done – straight out of the Department of Bad Ideas. You know that “skippable” will turn into “unskippable” and then “inserted where the ad breaks are, and now unskippable”. A shame that TiVo couldn’t make its business model work; ever since I tried it in 2001, I’ve had a soft spot for it. (But it’s long since stopped being on sale in the UK; the Sky+ box deleted it from the market.)
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Apple Arcade is mobile gaming without all the bullshit • Kotaku

Michael Fahey and Stephen Totilo:

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The Apple Arcade service is an all-you-can-play offering of more than 70 new games that is available starting today for $5 a month, with a one-month free trial.. It runs on iPhones and iPads now and will soon also work on iMacs and other devices including Apple TV.

Because of the way the games are being offered, there’s no need for the developers to include any of the aggravations typical of modern gaming. There are no timers designed to stop you from playing the game you’re enjoying unless you pay extra. There are no ads. There are no energy meters, and no microtransactions.

There are, simply, none of the manipulative systems that have contaminated nearly all of mobile gaming. Just imagine playing a puzzle game and not having to wait an hour for a timer to tick down before you can play the next level. Imagine playing a strategy game where you aren’t offered the chance to pay more to speed up the suspiciously slow building times. Imagine not being screwed with while you play mobile games. What a concept!

Freed of that, there is instead what will possibly prove to be one of the best gaming launch lineups in history. We say probably, because the biggest problem of covering Apple Arcade’s launch is the sheer amount of games, that all hit at once. The roster included about 50 new games when we started digging into a beta of the service earlier this week. It has grown to 70 today, and Apple says it will soon expand past 100. We therefore haven’t even had time to play all the games, let alone get very far into many of them.

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What they forgot to mention: PlayStation and XBox controllers will work with them – you don’t have to use touch. Pair the controller with your iPhone/iPad/Apple TV/iMac and you can play the game with those. (They also show a number of the games below.)
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iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max review: a Game Of Cameras • WSJ

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From night shooting mode to ultra-wide lenses, Apple’s latest iPhones have a bunch of new camera tricks. WSJ’s Joanna Stern, with the help from the queen and some jousters, put all the new phones to the test at the New York Renaissance Faire.

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I rarely link to videos (OK there’s another one below) or to smartphone reviews, but Stern’s fabulous creativity in how to test and demonstrate devices is unmatched. Of course you’d take your phones to a faux-medieval jousting tournament where they don’t have any power outlets and refer to phones as “pixie boxes”. Of course. It’s just she mentioned it first.
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The Galaxy Fold is still extremely fragile, and Samsung knows it • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Samsung’s video exhorts owners to handle their $1,000-plus phones with kid gloves. Some of Samsung’s requests are more logical: the company advises against adding any additional screen protectors (which could interfere with the folding display). Others, though, like not applying “excessive pressure” to the touchscreen when tapping it, are a bit more unusual for a phone. Samsung also cautions that the Fold isn’t water or dustproof and that the magnets that hold it shut can interfere with other magnetic products, like credit credits, hotel room keys, or medical devices.

Unfortunately, despite all those warnings, it looks like the new Fold is still almost absurdly easy to break. As JerryRigEverything shows off in a comprehensive durability test, many of the issues that plagued the first attempt at the Fold are still here: the screen is still extremely soft and easy to scratch; even fingernails are capable of damaging the display. (Samsung’s warning about tapping it too hard makes more sense now.)

JerryRigEverything’s tests also found that it was far too easy for debris to make it inside the display, which is troubling. Other parts of the test were more encouraging. The Fold does hold up admirably against attempts to fold it backward, which is a testament to the level of engineering that Samsung has put into the physical hardware.

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“The Galaxy Fold [internal screen] has a hardness comparable to Play-doh, soggy bread or a $2,000 stick of chewing gum,” says JerryRigEverything calmly. It’s somewhere around 2 on the 10-denominated Mohs scale. The outside screen (and most smartphone screens) is about 7.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,150: Facebook zaps more data-sucking apps, bitcoin for.. aliens?, Google claims quantum leap, WeWork’s CEO under pressure, Apple Arcade gets replay, and more

  1. Re 5G. It’s disturbing to see 5G mentionned over and over again as some kind of growth Kickstarter. It’s a sales-pitch item alright, but on mobile phones at the macro level it doesn’t enable new uses, and at the micro level it probably doesn’t even increase bandwidth/decrease latency that much (getting one more bar of 4G and an unsaturated backhaul gives you a lot more).

    5G will probably make a difference as a substitute for landlines for the last mile and for campus-wide setups, and maybe for a handful of special cases (stadiums, maybe isolated rural at low speed). I hoped it would solve at least radio fragmentation, but the US are once again going a different route than ROW. Until they start phasing out 4G coverage, I don’t think I’ll have 5G as a must-have, not even as a should-have.

  2. Someone with a mean mindset would write a jibe about Android having been compatible with PS/MS/other gamepads over USB and BT for ages.
    Strangely catching-up stuff seem to be remarked upon when it’s Google catching up to Apple (see last week’s bit on cloud backup), not the other way around.
    Anyway, nice and way past due. AppleTV could make a very nice low-end game console. High-specs Android TV boxes can too, but you’ve got to trial and error which games work well in that configuration (landscape, no-touch screen). The $100 Beelink GT1-K is probably the best suited for that (Arm A7x, 4GB…) or the undying nVidia Shield.

    On the same topic, is Apple Arcade compatible with a Family plan ? Google’s version is, and that makes a difference. $60/yr for one person’s games is probably unjustified. For 2 adults and 3 kids… worth a try. Plus Google rebates the plan to $24 for the first year, time enough to make up one’s mind.

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