Start Up No.1191: Snapchat checking political ads, cheaper iPhone sells in China, spot that bot!, Disney+ hacked accounts for sale, and more

An old-time skill.. has just become relevant again: the scissor switch has definitely returned to Apple’s keyboard. CC-licensed photo by Andy Ihnatko on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Make backups. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple iPhone 11 scores early China success, official data shows • Bloomberg

Yuan Gao, and Colum Murphy:


Apple shipped 10 million iPhones in China during September and October, based on Bloomberg’s calculations from government data on overall and Android device shipments. That’s the first indication of the company’s performance following the autumn release of its latest gadgets, and it shows iPhone shipments up 6% from a year earlier, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, which is run by the country’s technology ministry.

That affirms expectations that Apple’s iPhone 11 is selling more strongly than its predecessor, particularly in a market that’s second only to the US in its importance to Apple’s bottom line. The company had recently been stuck in a rut in China, ceding ground to local rivals like Huawei and Xiaomi, which offer more enticing pricing, better specifications and increasingly premium design. Apple also lost market share to Samsung Electronics and Huawei globally prior to the iPhone 11’s release. Chief executive officer Tim Cook has said new pricing, a monthly payment program and trade-in offers helped the iPhone’s performance in China.

“Chinese customers seem to be receiving the iPhone 11 series better than last year’s models because of the lowered retail price,” said Nicole Peng, a Canalys analyst. “We see weaker shipments for old models but the latest products are going strong.”

Overall Chinese smartphone shipments dropped 5% to 69.3 million units during the two months, according to reports published by the academy, which is run by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and tracks the number of smartphones that get permits to be sold in China.


Price affects sales? Who could have guessed? Seems the iPhone isn’t quite the Veblen good some thought.
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GPTrue or False • Chrome Web Store



OpenAI’s recently released GPT-2 model has revealed itself to be capable of generating incredibily realistic text.

With the rampant spread of fake news in today’s world, such tools may pose a threat to the quality of the information found on the internet.

Luckily, OpenAI also released a detector which is designed to detect whether a given portion of text has been generated by GPT-2 or not.

This extension wraps the detector into a simple browser extension. Simply select a portion of text (at least 50 words) and the extension will let you know of the GPT-2 log probability that the text is indeed real.


Pretty soon this will have to be built in to every browser, won’t it. (User tests suggest it’s pretty good at it.)
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Facebook’s fake numbers problem • Financial Times

Elaine Moore and Hannah Murphy:


At first glance, Amy Dowd’s Facebook account appears perfectly normal. There is a smiling profile picture of a young woman surrounded by autumnal leaves and the date that she began a new job at Southeast Missouri State University. But look more closely and things begin to seem strange. Unlike most 29 year olds, Amy has no friends, no interests and no photos. The only thing she has written is a gushing review of a US haulage company. “Fake account,” replied one user. They were right.

This Amy Dowd does not exist. Her account is a fake bought by the Financial Times as part of an investigation into the millions of bogus accounts littering the social media network in spite of efforts to better verify users.

The proliferation of phoney identities has reached a record high. That is a problem for a company that trumpets user growth — considered a barometer of health by investors — while receiving criticism for failing to prevent the spread of false information by third parties.

Facebook’s own estimates suggest duplicate accounts represent approximately 11% of monthly active users while fake versions make up another 5%. Others claim the total is higher. Yet Facebook continues to promote its user base as an incredible 2.45bn per month — close to one-third of the global population.

Growth in user numbers looks significantly less impressive once adjusted for duplicate and fake accounts — up 7% in the past two years, rather than 18% calculated by Facebook.

The discrepancy highlights the lack of transparency around the metrics used by one of the world’s most valuable companies. Given the importance of users to the company’s revenue growth and profitability Facebook needs to open up its data to more detailed audit and create a new, adjusted metric to count users.


Facebook released data the other day saying that it zaps pretty much every fake account itself, and that humans spot about 0.5% of them. I think that’s “surviving planes syndrome” – it doesn’t know how many fake accounts it misses.
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Google Stadia wants you to replace your video game console. Don’t • The New York Times

Brian Chen:


I recommend taking a wait-and-see approach before buying games there. Here are the biggest uncertainties:

• It’s unclear whether Stadia games will continue streaming smoothly. Once hordes of people start using the service, they might overload the servers, and gamers could see degraded performance. (I was among a small number of reviewers testing the service.) Google said its data centers were designed to handle peak traffic proficiently.

• Will the cost be worth it to gamers? Like other game providers, Google will sell games à la carte — a premium game costs $60, for example. But to play the games in the highest (4K) resolution, gamers must pay a subscription of $10 a month. Gamers might prefer instead to buy a PlayStation 4 Pro for $400 and play 4K games for as long as they wish.

• The games catalog is the biggest unknown. With Stadia’s release, there will be about two dozen titles to buy — mostly games that were released on other systems. While Nintendo’s Switch had only 10 titles on Day 1, among those was an exclusive Zelda game that got rave reviews.

It’s unclear whether Stadia will get highly anticipated titles on the same day they are released for PlayStation 4 or Xbox. A Google spokesman said that in the future, Stadia should get new titles around the same time as other game systems.


Still struggle to see the benefit of this over just buying a console.
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ByteDance to take on rivals with music streaming launch • Financial Times

Anna Nicolaou:


The Beijing-based technology company aims to launch as soon as next month, initially in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and Brazil, before a future opening in the US, according to people briefed on the plans. 

The move would see ByteDance, valued by Japanese investment group SoftBank at $75bn last year, battle directly with industry leaders Spotify, Tencent and Apple in the market for paid music.

The Chinese group aims to differentiate itself from rivals by focusing on the user-generated content that has quickly made TikTok one of the world’s most popular social media platforms.

The app allows people to post and watch short video clips; content often veers towards silly comedy sketches and dance “challenges” to various trending songs. TikTok claims more than 1bn users, which makes it more popular than better known social media platforms Snapchat or Twitter.

Music executives are keen to make money from TikTok, which is free to use. They view a new ByteDance app as a welcome addition to the music streaming market, where a number of companies, including Apple, Spotify and Amazon, offer a similar catalogue of songs. 


I liked the comedian David Mitchell’s comment about music: “I find it’s rather like the weather. There’s just a lot of it and it’s always there and you can like it or complain about it.” Music services are all becoming more and more weather-like.
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Thousands of hacked Disney+ accounts are already for sale on hacking forums • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


Hackers didn’t waste any time and have started hijacking Disney+ user accounts hours after the service launched.

Many of these accounts are now being offered for free on hacking forums, or available for sale for prices varying from $3 to $11, a ZDNet investigation has discovered.

The Disney+ video streaming service launched on November 12. The service, although being available only in the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, has already amassed more than 10 million customers in its first 24 hours.

The Disney+ launch was marred by technical issues. Many users reported being unable to stream their favorite movies and shows.

But hidden in the flood of complaints about technical issues was a smaller stream of users reporting losing access to their accounts.

Many users reported that hackers were accessing their accounts, logging them out of all devices, and then changing the account’s email and password, effectively taking over the account and locking the previous owner out.

…Two users who spoke with ZDNet on the condition we do not share their names admitted that they reused passwords. However, other users said online that they did not, and had used passwords unique for their Disney+ accounts.

This suggests that in some cases hackers gained access to accounts by using email and password combos leaked at other sites, while in other cases the Disney+ credentials might have been obtained from users infected with keylogging or info-stealing malware.


That’s a low, low price for an account.
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Snapchat fact-checks political ads unlike Facebook: CEO Evan Spiegel • CNBC

William Feuer:


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political advertising, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to ban all political advertising, though the company is now struggling to define what actually qualifies as a political advertisement. Google, which also owns YouTube, has remained quiet on the matter.

In contrast, Snapchat has a team to fact-check all political advertising on the platform, Spiegel says.

“We subject all advertising to review, including political advertising,” he said Monday. “And I think what we try to do is create a place for political ads on our platform, especially because we reach so many young people and first-time voters we want them to be able to engage with the political conversation, but we don’t allow things like misinformation to appear in that advertising.”

He compared Snap’s policy on political ads to cable TV. “That might be more similar to cable rather than broadcast,” he said.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, broadcast television stations cannot censor certain political advertisements based on accuracy concerns. Cable television networks are not bound by the same federal policies.


Wouldn’t it be nice if Facebook copied this, like it does everything else that Snapchat does?
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MacBook Pro 16″ 2019 teardown • iFixit



Remember the iMac’s Magic Keyboard? It’s a well-liked, reliable design that Apple calls the “core technology” for the redesigned keyboard in this new machine.

That might be understating it slightly: side by side, we’re hard pressed to spot any differences.

Scissor switches, keycaps… There’s slightly less space surrounding these new keys, and pundits will celebrate those reconfigured arrow keys—but everything else looks nigh identical.

News flash: there’s not even a dust-proofing membrane on these new switches. We’re inclined to take this as a very good sign. (It means we can finally eat Doritos during teardowns again.)…

…Compared once again with the desktop Magic Keyboard:

The two scissor mechanisms look nearly identical. The old Magic scissor is ever-so-slightly thicker (1.6 vs 1.38 mm).

0.22 mm may not seem like much, but no doubt a lot of engineering went into the re-creation of this slender new scissor switch.


It’s crazy that a teardown of a Mac, at the end of 2019, should have to focus on whether the keyboard is likely to be reliable. Let’s hope we never have to hear about it again.
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The flat-Earth conspiracy is spreading around the globe. Does it hide a darker core? • CNN

Rob Picheta, CNN:


On a clear day, the curvature of the Earth can be seen from an airplane window. But remarkably, the hundreds of flat Earthers at the Dallas gathering were just a small portion of the movement.

People in every pocket of this spherical planet are rejecting science and spreading the word that the Earth is flat.

There’s no clear study indicating how many people have been convinced — and flat Earthers like Weiss will tell you without evidence there are millions more in the closet anyway, including Hollywood A-listers and commercial airline pilots — but online communities have hundreds of thousands of followers and YouTube is inundated with flat-Earth content creators, whose productions reach millions.

A YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year that as many as one in six Americans are not entirely certain the world is round, while a 2019 Datafolha Institute survey of more than 2,000 Brazilian adults indicated that 7% of people in that country reject that concept, according to local media…

…most adherents demonstrate plenty of anti-scientific tendencies. It’s hard to find a flat Earther who doesn’t believe most other conspiracies under the sun; a flat-Earth conference is invariably also a gathering of anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers and Illuminati subscribers, to name a few.

It’s that hyper-skeptical mindset that helps flat earthers answer the big questions — like who’s hiding the true shape of the planet from us?

“The ruling elite, from the royal family to the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds … all of those groups that run the world, they’re in on it,” says Weiss.


As HG Wells said, “we are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Hard to figure who’s winning.
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WeWork may lay off thousands • The New York Times

Peter Eavis and Mike Isaac:


WeWork is preparing to cut at least 4,000 people from its work force as it tries to stabilize itself after the company’s breakneck growth racked up heavy losses and led it to the brink of collapse, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

The cuts are expected to be announced as early as this week and will take place across WeWork’s sprawling global operation. Under the plan, the company’s core business of subletting office space would lay off 2,000 to 2,500 employees, one of the people said. An additional 1,000 employees will leave as WeWork sells or closes down noncore businesses, like a private school in Manhattan that WeWork set up. Additionally, roughly 1,000 building maintenance employees will be transferred to an outside contractor. Together, these employees would represent around a third of the 12,500 people WeWork employed at the end of June.

But one of the people said the company could shed as many as 5,000 to 6,000 employees.


Has there ever been a bigger car crash of a venture-funded company? I’d love to know.
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Vaping apps go up in smoke on Apple’s App Store • The Washington Post

Marie Baca:


Apple removed all vaping-related apps from its App Store on Friday, siding with experts who call vaping “a public health crisis” and “a youth epidemic.”

Some of the 181 vaping apps removed by Apple permit the user to control the temperature or other settings on vaping devices. Others offer users access to social networks or games. The App Store has never permitted the sale of vaping cartridges through apps.

“We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence to determine risks to users’ health and well-being,” Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in a statement. Apple cited evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups that have linked vaping and e-cigarette usage to deaths and lung injuries.

The App Store is a powerful platform that generates billions of dollars in revenue for Apple. Apple sets the rules for what is allowed on it, affecting millions of users and developers. Some critics complain that Apple applies its standards unevenly or is too restrictive, while others say the company hasn’t gone far enough to curb harmful apps.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the criticism.

Apple says it hasn’t approved a vape-related app since June. That’s when the company updated its app review guidelines to prohibit anything that encourages or facilitates vaping, the company said.


A study published in the UK on the same day which showed that switching from cigarettes to vaping improves the health of the heart. The vaping deaths in the US seem to be linked to misuse. I find this move peculiar, at minimum; unjustified, at worse.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1191: Snapchat checking political ads, cheaper iPhone sells in China, spot that bot!, Disney+ hacked accounts for sale, and more

  1. I’m not a fan of Stadia either, but the use cases I can see are:
    1- Youtube-linked game streaming with a celebrity or top player, the streaming quality is bound to be much better going server -> broadcast than client -> encode -> server -> broadcast.
    2- Playing with celeb or master (ads and monetization opportunities for those 2)
    3- Lower initial layout for gaming, though higher over time
    4- easier gaming vs PC, no game download and install, driver issues, storage constraints (my teen nephew has run into all those, would you believe Canadian broadband is still metered in 2019 ? Plus a gift of a game is abysmal OOBE, first experience = hours long, flaky DL)
    5- more convenient gaming on any screen (TV , tablet, phone)

    I’m fairly insensitive to all that, but maybe younger generations will like it, also maybe adults who only play on vacations could sub/unsub, as happens with video streaming services. I think server load is a non-issue, Google is good at that, for example they’re the ones who helped Pokemon Go get back on its feet in a few short days when demand exceeded expectations by several orders of magnitude.

    Ars Technica has a nice in-depth review ( ) , turns out Stadia is mostly good at proving how flaky most home WIFI is (I get a disconnect when moving from desk to bed, though it then reconnects… beamforming for the almost-win ?).

    I knew Android’s ability to drive a wired Ethernet USB dongle would come in handy some day ^^

  2. Re: “WeWork May Lay Off Thousands”

    “Has there ever been a bigger car crash of a venture-funded company? I’d love to know.”


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