Start Up No.1,173: Amazon and permafrost warnings, who tips on Uber?, why iOS and macOS have bugs (duh), dark mode saves battery!, and more


Hard to imagine, but there’s now a serious surplus of legal marijuana – and demand isn’t meeting it. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. How high? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon rainforest ‘close to irreversible tipping point’ • The Guardian

Dom Phillips:

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Soaring deforestation coupled with the destructive policies of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, could push the Amazon rainforest dangerously to an irreversible “tipping point” within two years, a prominent economist has said.

After this point the rainforest would stop producing enough rain to sustain itself and start slowly degrading into a drier savannah, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, which would exacerbate global heating and disrupt weather across South America.

The warning came in a policy brief published this week by Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC.

The report sparked controversy among climate scientists. Some believe the tipping point is still 15 to 20 years away, while others say the warning accurately reflects the danger that Bolsonaro and global heating pose to the Amazon’s survival.

“It’s a stock, so like any stock you run it down, run it down – then suddenly you don’t have any more of it,” said de Bolle, whose brief also recommended solutions to the current crisis.

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It would be great if any of the solutions proposed for these very evident problems had ever been implemented, let alone been shown to work. One begins to worry.
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Climate change has turned permafrost into a carbon emitter • CBC News

Bob Weber:

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Research has found Arctic soil has warmed to the point where it releases more carbon in winter than northern plants can absorb during the summer.

The finding means the extensive belt of tundra around the globe — a vast reserve of carbon that dwarfs what’s held in the atmosphere — is becoming a source of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

“There’s a net loss,” said Dalhousie University’s Jocelyn Egan, one of 75 co-authors of a paper published in Nature Climate Change.

“In a given year, more carbon is being lost than what is being taken in. It is happening already.”

The research by scientists in 12 countries and from dozens of institutions is the latest warning that northern natural systems that once reliably kept carbon out of the atmosphere are starting to release it.

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Samsung updates software to fix fingerprint recognition problem • Reuters

Ju-min Park and Sangmi Cha:

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Samsung Electronics has updated software to fix problems with fingerprint recognition features on its flagship Galaxy S10 and Note 10 smartphones, it said on Wednesday.

Samsung issued an apology via its customer support app Samsung Members and told its Galaxy phone users to update their biometric authentication to the latest software version.

A British user told The Sun newspaper that a bug on her Galaxy S10 allowed it to be unlocked regardless of the biometric data registered in the device.

Samsung has said the issue can happen when patterns appearing on certain protectors that come with silicon cases are recognized along with fingerprints.

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Quick fix – but pretty surprising that it got through QA testing.
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Who tips best on Uber? Economists analyzed 40 million trips. Here’s what they found • The Washington Post

Andrew Van Dam:

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If you know who the rider is, you can guess the tip regardless of trip or driver quality. The rider’s identity accounts for three times more of the difference in tip size than driver identity does, the authors found. Like the other figures we’ll list, this has been adjusted for the time and location of the rides.

Men tip more often on Uber. Women tip 14.3% of the time. Men tip 17.0% of the time. Men’s tips are also bigger. But other research shows the gender tip gap varies depending on context, Cornell’s Lynn said.

“There are circumstances where I find men are bigger tippers, but there are many circumstances where I do not find that, so I do not believe men are better tippers across the board,” Lynn said. It seems plausible, given complaints of harassment, that women on Uber tip less because they’re getting a worse experience in the vehicle.

“We don’t see what’s happening literally in the car,” Chandar said. “We don’t observe the conversation between rider and driver.” An Uber spokesperson noted the app had added several safety features since the data in the study was collected in 2017.

Men tip 12% more if their driver is a woman, but that’s entirely because they give more money to the youngest female drivers. The premium men pay to women behind the wheel shrinks as the women get older. By the time the drivers are age 65, it has virtually vanished. Women also tip other women more, but they don’t significantly change their tips based on the driver’s age.

Drivers who use the Uber app in a different language get 30% lower tips. Users can change the Uber app’s default language to Spanish, Chinese, French and several other languages. Researchers used this setting to estimate whether someone was an immigrant, or at least didn’t speak English as a first language. Riders who use the app in a different language also leave lower tips, the authors found.

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The study is here. It’s a huge insight into tipping.
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Six reasons why iOS 13 and Catalina are so buggy • TidBITS

David Shayer:

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Crash Reports Don’t Identify Non-Crashing Bugs

If you have reporting turned on (which I recommend), Apple’s built-in crash reporter automatically reports application crashes, and even kernel crashes, back to the company. A crash report includes a lot of data. Especially useful is the stack trace, which shows exactly where the code crashed, and more importantly, how it got to that point. A stack trace often enables an engineer to track down the crash and fix it.

Crash reports are uniquely identified by the stack trace. The same stack trace on multiple crash reports means all those users are seeing the same crash. The crash reporter backend sorts crash reports by matching the stack traces, and those that occur most often get the highest priority. Apple takes crash reports seriously and tries hard to fix them. As a result, Apple software crashes a lot less than it used to.

Unfortunately, the crash reporter can’t catch non-crashing bugs. It’s blind to the photos that never upload to iCloud, the contact card that just won’t sync from my Mac to my iPhone, the Time Capsule backups that get corrupted and have to be restarted every few months, and the setup app on my new iPhone 11 that got caught in a loop repeatedly asking me to sign in to my iCloud account, until I had to call Apple support. (These are all real problems I’ve experienced.)

Apple tracks non-crashing bugs the old-fashioned way: with human testers (QA engineers), automated tests, and reports from third-party developers and Apple support. Needless to say, this approach is as much an art as it is a science, and it’s much harder both to identify non-crashing bugs (particularly from reports from Apple support) and for the engineers to track them down.

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Shayer “was an Apple software engineer for 18 years. He worked on the iPod, the Apple Watch, and Apple’s bug-tracking system Radar, among other projects”. I found this fascinating, but it actually didn’t answer the question it says it’ll answer: why these two OSs particularly, this year, have been so buggy. Unless it’s the “complexity has ballooned” segment, which sounds very possible; maybe there comes a point, once you’ve moved from one OS to (counts on fingers) seven, even if some are branches of the others, when the firefighting is all you can do.
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Elizabeth Warren has a lot of supporters on Wall Street over Trump • Vox

Emily Stewart:

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Some in the industry believe that the excesses of the financial system continue to be a problem in the wake of the Great Recession and that corporate concentration, wealth inequality, and lax regulation are still issues that need addressing. Do they think she’s 100% right on everything? No. But they know she’s smart, and they think she’s approaching policy with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. They believe Warren when she says she is a capitalist and are on board with her brand of capitalism.

“A place like mine chooses winners economically,” said a Goldman Sachs vice president. “Is that right? It doesn’t seem like that is right.”

I spoke with more than three dozen people from across the financial sector — professionals who work at hedge funds, big banks, and private equity funds, in asset management, financial advice, investment banking, trading, research, and compliance — who support Warren’s presidential bid. They know if she lands in the White House that may make their jobs a bit different, their companies a little less lucrative, or mean they’ll pay more in taxes. And they think that’s great. They support Warren because of her policies, not in spite of them.

“Even though, on a personal basis, Elizabeth Warren may be bad for me economically, she would be better for society, which I want my kids to grow up in,” a director at Citi told me.

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I really don’t think this “talk to people who hold an opinion that we can’t find in the newsroom” is going to wash at the NY Times and Washington Post.

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Katie Couric drills Sheryl Sandberg in Vanity Fair summit talk • Variety

Matt Donnelly:

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Couric hit Sandberg with comments from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer who resigned in 2018, made in May.

“My real fear is that in 2020, it is going to be the battle of the billionaires, of secret groups working for people aligned on both sides, who are trying to manipulate us at scale, online,” Couric quoted Stamos. “What is Facebook doing to defend the platform against this kind of domestic threat?”

Sandberg ceded it was a good question, and responded that on Facebook “the transparency is dramatically different,” noting that content pages will now receive geotags identifying their origin points whether they like it or not.

Couric was not satisfied. “But then why did Facebook announce not to fact check political ads last month? The Rand Corporation actually has a term for this, ‘truth decay.’ Mark [Zuckerberg] himself has defended this decision even as the press have expressed concerns about the erosion of truth online. What is the rationale for that?”

Cue nervous laughter from the audience, before Couric added: “And I know you’re going to say, ‘We’re not a news organization. We’re a platform.’”

Sandberg thanked her for the opportunity to talk about it.

“It’s not for the money, it’s a very small part of our revenue. It is very small, and very controversial, we’re not doing this for the money. We take political ads because we really believe they are part of political discourse,” Sandberg said. “Looking at it over time, the people that benefit from political ads are those not covered by the media, so they can get their message out.”

Sandberg also defended their ad labeling system, saying each spot would be verified and identified by who paid for the placement.

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Apparently this passes for red-hot-poker interviewing in the US.
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WeWork founder Adam Neumann is still a billionaire after bailout • Bloomberg

Tom Metcalf:

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WeWork’s value has tumbled, about 2,000 employees are being cut and many investors are nursing losses after the firm’s bailout.

But founder Adam Neumann is still a billionaire.

SoftBank Group Corp.’s proposed rescue package of WeWork involves Neumann selling about $1bn of stock and getting a $185m consulting fee from the Japanese firm even as the deal values the struggling office-sharing company at $8bn, according to people familiar with the transaction. That’s down from an estimated $47bn at the start of the year. Neumann will leave the company’s board though he still can assign two seats.

On these terms, Neumann’s net worth would be at least $1bn, according to calculations by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. While that’s a fraction of what it was on paper in January – the last time SoftBank made an investment in WeWork – it’s a remarkable return from a business that has never made a profit and seen its initial public offering spurned by skeptical investors.

A spokeswoman for Neumann declined to comment.

WeWork parent We Co.’s withdrawn prospectus sketched out ways Neumann has already monetized some of his stake. He sold hundreds of millions of dollars of stock in earlier funding rounds, according to the Wall Street Journal. He also has a $500m credit line – secured by WeWork shares – from UBS Group AG, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Credit Suisse Group AG. About $380m was outstanding as of July 31. JPMorgan also loaned him $97.5m.

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He’s going to repay the $500m loan… with, it seems, a $500m credit line from WeWork.

This is madness. The company was going to run out of money by the end of next week, and didn’t have the money to pay severance to those 2,000 people who are being fired. The money being given to Neumann would have given them each hundreds of thousands.

It’s sickening. Has Neumann created a billion dollars of value in the world? No; he’s just shuffled existing value around and splurged money that didn’t belong to him, increasing the entropy of said money – apart from the bit he somehow made stick to him. All the bad elements of late-stage capitalism in a tidy bundle. (Onion headline: “WeWork HR Invites Employees To Sign Goodbye Checks For Departing CEO”.)
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Aurora cannabis is dumping its pot, which may be a sign it’s all over • Forbes

Stephen McBride:

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after peaking in the spring, most pot stocks crashed 50%+. Many investors took this as an opportunity to buy them for cheap… hoping they would soon recover.

But here’s the thing: the best days for pot stocks are over. Pot stocks will never recover to their prime-time heights. And there’s one simple reason for that.

It all comes down to demand and supply.

Let me show you the most important chart in the pot industry.

It shows how pot inventories are growing… and growing… and growing… just like crop inventories did in the 1930s.

In just a year after Canada’s historic pot legalization, pot producers built up a massive surplus of pot. In fact, only 4% of pot produced in Canada in July has been sold!

The rest is being stored in warehouses… just like crops during the Great Depression.

For much of the past century, laws held back pot production like a dam holds back a river. But Canada threw those floodgates wide open, and the market was flooded with millions of kilos of pot.

Now there’s more pot in Canada than folks will probably ever need. And it’s only getting worse.

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Simple: make its consumption compulsory. Sure that we’ll see the pot companies lobbying for that soon enough.
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Japanese hotel chain sorry that hackers may have watched guests through bedside robots • The Register

John Oates:

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The Henn na Hotel is staffed by robots: guests can be checked in by humanoid or dinosaur reception bots before proceeding to their room.

Facial recognition tech will let customers into their room and then a bedside robot will assist with other requirements. However several weeks ago a security researcher revealed on Twitter that he had warned HIS Group in July about the bed-bots being easily accessible, noting they sported “unsigned code” allowing a user to tap an NFC tag to the back of robot’s head and allow access via the streaming app of their choice.

Having heard nothing, the researcher made the hack public on 13 October. The vulnerability allows guests to gain access to cameras and microphones in the robot remotely so they could watch and listen to anyone in the room in the future.

The hotel is one of a chain of 10 in Japan which use a variety of robots instead of meat-based staff.

So far the reference is only to Tapia robots at one hotel, although it is not clear if the rest of the chain uses different devices.

The HIS Group tweeted: “We apologize for any uneasiness caused,” according to the Tokyo Reporter.

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“We apologise that your unease at having no human contact may have been increased by having the wrong sort of human contact.”
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Test shows dark mode really can save battery life on OLED iPhones • Engadget

Steve Dent:

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Dark mode is a key feature on iOS 13, but can it really extend your iPhone’s battery life? If it’s an OLED model, the answer seems to be a firm yes, according to tests done by PhoneBuff. They used robotic devices to perform identical tasks on two iPhone XS test devices, one in light and one in dark mode. That included watching a YouTube video, using Twitter, navigating with Google Maps and chatting on the Messages app.

At the end of the test the “light mode” iPhone XS was dead, while the one running dark mode still had 30% battery life. That result is a pretty good justification for switching if you often drain your iPhone’s battery.

Keep in mind that these aren’t exactly official tests and that real life usage might vary. Also, the phones were run at a fairly bright 200 nits, so you’re bound to get different results at different brightness levels. Finally, the test only used dark mode-compliant apps. All that said, it’s an impressive result.

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That really is unexpected, and impressive. The difference arises because an OLED pixel is naturally black when it has no power, so the fewer pixels you light, the less battery you use. Alternatively: use low power mode and stick with light mode. (Thanks stormyparis for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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