Start Up No.1193: Google cuts back TGIF, the $4bn browser extension, Ring shares a bit too much video?, “right to repair”.. military equipment, and more

The new antibiotics pipeline is barren. Time to take pharma companies into public ownership and fill it? CC-licensed photo by Sheep purple on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Quid pro quod erat demonstrandum. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google shakes up its ‘TGIF’—and ends its culture of openness • WIRED

Steven Levy:


“It’s not working in its current form,” Pichai said of what was once the hallmark of Google culture. In 2020, he declared, the [TGIF] meetings [held at the end of Fridays] would be limited to once a month, and they would be more constrained affairs, sticking to “product and business strategy.” Don’t Be Evil has changed to Don’t Ask Me Anything.

With that, Pichai not only ended an era at Google, he symbolically closed the shutters on a dream held widely in the tech world—that one can scale a company to global ubiquity while maintaining the camaraderie of an idealistic clan.

Pichai cited decreased attendance rates, the difficulty of running a real-time gathering across time zones, and an uptick in meetings among big product groups like Cloud or YouTube. His most resonant reason, however, was that Google employees could no longer be trusted to keep matters confidential. He cited “a coordinated effort to share our conversations outside of the company after every TGIF … it has affected our ability to use TGIF as a forum for candid conversations on important topics.” He also noted that while many want to hear about product launches and business strategies, some attend to “hear answers on other topics.” It seems obvious he was referring to recent moments when aggrieved employees registered objections to Google’s policies and missteps—on developing a search engine for China, bestowing millions of dollars to executives charged with sexual misconduct, or hiring a former Homeland Security apparatchik. Pichai says Google may address such issues in specific town-hall meetings when warranted.

…The loss of TGIF is huge. The ability to ask the boss any question in a timely fashion was a powerful symbol of employee empowerment. The practice began when Google was relatively tiny, as a relaxed session—beer was served!—where cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took queries, no matter how challenging, from anyone who cared to ask. The company even invented an app that allowed employees to rank potential questions, so pressing ones would get precedence.

When I was writing a book about Google some years ago, I sat in on several TGIFs, held in the cavernous Charlie’s Cafe on the Mountain View campus. They followed a format that became a template for dozens of new companies thereafter.


Levy – who has been so far inside Google he was almost a staffer – says that the company’s culture has effectively been changed from Don’t Be Evil to Don’t Ask Me Anything. It’s been a long time coming.
link to this extract

PayPal acquires the company behind the Honey deal-finding Chrome extension for $4bn • The Verge

Jay Peters:


When you’re shopping on one of the 30,000 online retailers Honey works with, the extension will find coupon codes for things you add to your cart and attempt to automatically apply them for you. In my experience, though, the codes Honey finds don’t always work — Best Buy’s online store didn’t take a Honey-found coupon for an order I created for a Nintendo Switch, for example — but it’s a useful service to at least help you check for coupon codes before you buy something.

Honey can also track prices of an individual item and notify you when it drops below a certain threshold. Honey also offers a rewards program, Honey Gold, which gives you “Gold” for using Honey while you’re shopping that can be redeemed for gift cards. (PayPal-owned Venmo just launched a similar rewards program for its physical debit card.)

PayPal’s press release isn’t clear about exactly how Honey and its deal-finding tech will be integrated into PayPal’s products, but in an interview with TechCrunch, PayPal SVP John Kunze said that PayPal wants to build Honey’s functionality “into the PayPal and Venmo experiences.” PayPal merchant partners will also apparently be able to use Honey to offer more targeted promotions, according to TechCrunch.


The Techcrunch version that it points to doesn’t make what seems to me the amazing thing here: this is a Chrome extension. A business that relies on being a Chrome extension is worth $4bn.
link to this extract

Merkel faces party revolt over Huawei’s role in German 5G rollout • Financial Times

Guy Chazan:


Angela Merkel is facing a rebellion in her party over the German government’s decision not to formally exclude Huawei from the buildout of its next generation 5G telecoms network, amid rising concern in Berlin at potential security risks.

MPs from Ms Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union have put forward a motion for the party’s annual conference this week in Leipzig that would in effect ban the Chinese supplier from the 5G project.

There is also pressure from inside Ms Merkel’s own cabinet to pursue a tougher line on Huawei. Foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday that when it came to the safety of critical infrastructure, Germany “cannot afford to ignore the political and legal realities that a supplier is subjected to”.

Ms Merkel has refused to prohibit Huawei outright, insisting instead that all telecom equipment providers be allowed to take part in the 5G rollout providing they meet certain tightened security standards.

The chancellor has stuck to the approach despite fierce pressure from the US to shut out the Chinese group, which Washington says could be used by Beijing to conduct espionage or cyber sabotage.


The US pressure isn’t surprising, but the internal pressure is a new thing. Huawei isn’t entirely trusted at the network level either.
link to this extract

Ring: Doorbell camera footage can be kept by police forever and shared with whomever they’d like • The Washington Post



Police officers who download videos captured by homeowners’ Ring doorbell cameras can keep them forever and share them with whomever they’d like without providing evidence of a crime, the Amazon-owned firm told a lawmaker this month.

More than 600 police forces across the country have entered into partnerships with the camera giant, allowing them to quickly request and download video recorded by Ring’s motion-detecting, Internet-connected cameras inside and around Americans’ homes.

The company says that the videos can be a critical tool in helping law enforcement investigate crimes such as trespassing, burglary and package theft, and that homeowners are free to decline the requests. But some lawmakers and privacy advocates say the systems could empower more widespread police surveillance, fuel racial profiling and spark new neighborhood fears.

In September, following reports about Ring’s police partnerships by The Washington Post and other outlets, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Amazon asking for details about how it protected the privacy and civil liberties of people caught on camera. Since that report, the number of law enforcement agencies working with Ring has increased nearly 50 percent.


“The telescreen recieved and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever the wanted to.”
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Facebook’s director of business integrity explains the platform’s political ads policy • AdAge

Garett Sloane interviewed Rob Leathern:


Twitter now bans just about all political ads. You’ve taken a different approach. Why?
I won’t talk specifically about the decisions other companies are making. I can talk a little bit about how we think about political ads and social issue ads. When it comes to issue ads obviously there’s a challenge about where to draw the line. Things that mention candidates or an election campaign are clearly political, but there are a lot of ads that are about highly politicized issues: health care, veterans services, climate change, other areas. We think it’s important to take kind of a broad approach here.

We also have to give people a place to express their voice. It’s not just about the presidential and well-known candidates, but it’s also about the local, little-known or new candidates that don’t typically have access to the same kind of media, the same kinds of ways to get their message out there.

We think that if we stopped running political ads on our services then the people who would really benefit are going to be the incumbents and established politicians, the newcomers would not benefit. Challengers don’t have the ability to spend $60,000 to produce a TV ad, let alone the media costs of running it.

Why not ban negative ads?
We have been working to even just identify what are political ads and what are social issue ads. It’s a challenging technical problem to identify these ads, which we’ve gotten a lot better at and continue to improve. We’re going to continue to miss things, but I think we’re getting better at just identifying social issues and political ads. But going to the next point of identifying what is a negative ad and what’s not, that’s also just a difficult technical challenge, and we’re definitely focused on the first part of that, identifying political ads.


Facebook’s problem remains that any line it draws will inevitably turn out to be inscribed in sand, because a zillion bad actors will attempt to jump over it, or blur it. Even so, the idea that issues-based ads are “political” and therefore you throw up your hands is nonsensical. You can present the issues to people: eg “we should pay more for health care”, or “we should pay less tax because it gets wasted” or “the rich should pay a bigger proportion of taxes” are political, but don’t have to be associated with candidates.
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Here’s one reason the US military can’t fix its own equipment • The New York Times

Elle Ekman:


In July, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a workshop to address “the issues that arise when a manufacturer restricts or makes it impossible for a consumer or an independent repair shop to make product repairs.”

It has long been considered a problem with the automotive industry, electronics and farming equipment. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have even brought it up during their presidential campaigns, siding with farmers who want to repair their own equipment; while the senators are advocating national laws, at least 20 states have considered their own right-to-repair legislation this year.

I first heard about the term from a fellow Marine interested in problems with monopoly power and technology. A few past experiences then snapped into focus. Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months.

With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent.

I also recalled how Marines have the ability to manufacture parts using water-jets, lathes and milling machines (as well as newer 3-D printers), but that these tools often sit idle in maintenance bays alongside broken-down military equipment. Although parts from the manufacturer aren’t available to repair the equipment, we aren’t allowed to make the parts ourselves “due to specifications.”


None of your $200 hammers here. But the warranty on the hammers, well…
link to this extract

Big Pharma has failed: the antibiotic pipeline needs to be taken under public ownership • The Conversation

Claas Kirchhelle, Adam Roberts and Andrew Singer:


the injection of over £520m of public money since 2016 has not prevented the industry from further contracting. Between 2016 and 2019, major producers, such as Sanofi, Novartis and AstraZeneca shuttered their antibiotic-development divisions. This resulted in the closure of well-financed industrial research departments and a critical global loss of human capital and expertise in antibiotic R&D. According to a recent review, there is “now a shortage of experts qualified to lead research programs employing promising new antibiotic discovery methods”.

Although international non-profit organisations are mobilising further public money to subsidise for-profit development, it is questionable whether this public-private model will bear fruit. After over three decades of market failure and in the face of a critical contraction of remaining industry activity, alternatives beyond the market should urgently be explored.

The public is already sponsoring the high-risk phases of drug discovery and trialling by university researchers and private companies but own none of the intellectual property once antibiotics go to market. There has also been little public pay-off either in terms of new antibiotic classes or increased access to effective drugs in low-income countries.

The market is broken. It is time to apply recent official calls of “public money for public goods” to areas beyond farming and seriously consider public ownership of antibiotic research, development and production.


Kirchhelle is a research associate at the Oxford Martin School/ Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford; Roberts is a Reader in Antimicrobial Chemotherapy and Resistance, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine; Singer is a chemical ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Back in 1997, I spoke to the (about to be outgoing) science minister Ian Taylor, who said that getting more research into antibiotics was one of the most urgent matters facing us. Nothing’s happened since; that’s over 20 years lost.
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Does money make people right-wing and inegalitarian? A longitudinal study of lottery winners • Warwick University

Nattavudh Powdthavee and Andrew J. Oswald:


The causes of people’s political attitudes are largely unknown. We study this issue by exploiting longitudinal data on lottery winners. Comparing people before and after a lottery windfall, we show that winners tend to switch towards support for a right-wing political party and to become less egalitarian. The larger the win, the more people tilt to the right. This relationship is robust to (i) different ways of defining right-wing, (ii) a variety of estimation methods, and (iii) methods that condition on the person previously having voted left. It is strongest for males. Our findings are consistent with the view that voting is driven partly by human self-interest. Money apparently makes people more right-wing.


This is an academic paper, so it’s a PDF. It’s from 2014, not that that should make any difference. In effect, it’s showing that *sudden* accumulation of money makes people more right-wing, but the broad effect probably explains why shadowy thinktanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs or the so-called Taxpayers Alliance, neither of which discloses the sources of their funding but which are surely funded by rich people, espouse particularly right-wing views of the world – and particularly what should happen to those who have lots of money.
link to this extract

Google is putting an algorithmic audio news feed on its Assistant • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


Google is rolling out a new service for Google Assistant that it’s calling “Your News Update.” It takes the idea of an algorithmically determined news feed — the kind you get from Facebook or on Google’s news feed — and turns it into an audio stream. To play it, you simply ask a Google smart speaker or Assistant on your phone to “listen to the news.”

Google uses the information it has learned about you over the years alongside your location to custom-build a series of short news updates from partners from which it has licensed audio. It hopes to foster an ecosystem it’s calling “the audio web,” according to Liz Gannes, Google’s product manager of audio news. These aren’t podcasts so much as news bites, similar to the hourly news updates that can be heard on the radio.

Your News Update replaces the current way of getting news updates from Assistant, which consists of a straightforward list of news sources. With that system, you have to choose which sources you want and what order they’re played in…

…Google has licensed audio from a variety of news sources, including ABC, Cheddar, The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News Radio, PBS, Reuters, WYNC, and a bunch of local radio stations…

…the main problem I have with this kind of news feed is that while an algorithmic list of stories makes sense on a screen, it’s incredibly annoying when it’s a linear stream of audio. On a screen, you can scan through quickly and read headlines and sources, picking and choosing what you prefer. On an audio feed, you have to constantly bark “Hey Google, skip” if you get a story that isn’t a good match.

I also have concerns that, as with news feeds on the web, this new audio news feed will reinforce filter bubbles.


Yup. He’s absolutely right: it will. And you can also bet, like night follows day, that there will be attempts to game this. Hasn’t Google learnt anything from Facebook and YouTube’s and its own debacles around algorithmic suggestions for nuanced news topics?
link to this extract

Age structure of the world population • Our World in Data

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser:


In comparing 1950 and 2018 we see that the number of children born has increased – 97 million in 1950 to 143 million today – and that the mortality of children decreased at the same time. If you now compare the base of the pyramid in 2018 with the projection for 2100 you see that the coming decades will not resemble the past: According to the projections there will be fewer children born at the end of this century than today. The base of the future population structure is narrower.

We are at a turning point in global population history. Between 1950 and today it was a widening of the entire pyramid that was responsible for the increase of the world population. What is responsible for the increase of the world population from now on is not a widening of the base, but a ‘fill up’ of the population above the base. Not children will be added to the world population, but people of working age and old age. The number of children born will remain as high as it is today, but as global health is improving and mortality is falling these children will live longer. The final step that will end rapid population growth.

At a country level “peak child” is often followed by a time in which the country benefits from a “demographic dividend” when the proportion of the dependent young generation falls and the share of the population in working age increases.

This is now happening at a global scale. For every child younger than 15 there were 1.8 people in working-age (15 to 64) in 1950; today there are 2.5; and by the end of the century there will be 3.4.


The other graphic to look at in this fascinating page is the median age in countries – which is indicative both of their likelihood to see widespread violence (lower when the median age is higher) and to be politically conservative (goes up with median age).

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1193: Google cuts back TGIF, the $4bn browser extension, Ring shares a bit too much video?, “right to repair”.. military equipment, and more

  1. A lot is being reported on how Chinese OEMs copy Apple, but it’s really a general thing, akin to the “copy then transcend” advice artists were getting a few centuries back. As long as it doesn’t distract too much from thinking forward being very reactive is probably OK. Anyway…

    Latest case in point: Redmi and Realme won’t let the other get any extra checkmark on any list. Redmi Launches a T variant of their Note 8 in Europe for extra NFC + some LTE bands just like the Realme 5 Pro; Realme now launches a s variant of their 5 with the same shooter as the Note 8/8T.

    I still haven’t gotten around to buying a Realme; I should because they’re a very credible alternative to Xiaomi for the value-oriented, probably the only alternative, and I need to dogfood stuff before recommending it.

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