Start Up No.1198: climate hits crisis, farewell Clive James, TikTok bends the truth, who’ll fire Zuck (or Zuck Jr)?, and more

iFixit has some strong views about Apple’s responses to the US Congress over repairing its devices. CC-licensed photo by Dunk %uD83D%uDC1D 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.

Climate emergency: world ‘may have crossed tipping points’ • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


The world may already have crossed a series of climate tipping points, according to a stark warning from scientists. This risk is “an existential threat to civilisation”, they say, meaning “we are in a state of planetary emergency”.

Tipping points are reached when particular impacts of global heating become unstoppable, such as the runaway loss of ice sheets or forests. In the past, extreme heating of 5C was thought necessary to pass tipping points, but the latest evidence suggests this could happen between 1C and 2C.

The planet has already heated by 1C and the temperature is certain to rise further, due to past emissions and because greenhouse gas levels are still rising. The scientists further warn that one tipping point, such as the release of methane from thawing permafrost, may fuel others, leading to a cascade.

The researchers, writing in a commentary article in the journal Nature, acknowledge that the complex science of tipping points means great uncertainty remains. But they say the potential damage from the tipping points is so big and the time to act so short, that “to err on the side of danger is not a responsible option”. They call for urgent international action…

…Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, the lead author of the article, said: “We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of interrelated tipping points. The simple version is the schoolkids [striking for climate action] are right: we are seeing potentially irreversible changes in the climate system under way, or very close.”


Remember Hemingway on bankruptcy – gradually, and then suddenly. But you can come back from bankruptcy. Earth won’t be so forgiving.
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Clive James: ‘A wisecracking literary phenomenon who was on fire with life itself’ • The Guardian

Robert McCrum:


[in his TV criticism] he found a voice – a voice that he cherished, I suspect, to his penultimate breath. In its prime, there was nothing quite like it: who can forget his observation that Murray Walker, the motor racing commentator, always broadcast “as if his trousers were on fire”.

The best of Clive’s myriad and prodigal cracks – for instance that “Perry Como gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say ‘cheese’ and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow” or that Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron resembled “a brown condom filled with walnuts” – had an unequalled, surreal hilarity that disguised a ferociously determined Grub Street bruiser who wanted to compete in every literary Olympiad going.

This was the essential Clive James. Possibly it transformed his final years into a redemption that might otherwise have been a living hell. His injury time sponsored the indefatigable bibliography of a writer obsessed with Memento Mori (poetry, columns, an audacious new translation of The Divine Comedy, essays on Larkin and Game of Thrones, and ever more poetry).

On fire with life itself, he even began to outlive his own material. The Japanese maple that had inspired a globally viral poem in 2014 became first an embarrassment (the poet did not die), then a reproach (it grew into a sturdy sapling), and finally a black joke (it pegged out before him).


I’ve heard there was occasionally a ghostwriter for his TV column; the books of collected columns – Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued To The Box – were essential reading if you wanted to understand how a critical voice could develop, back in the days when shared cultural experiences frequently, rather than rarely, happened via TV.
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Apple told Congress how repair should work. They were intentionally misleading • iFixit

Kevin Purdy of iFixit:


In addition to their questions, Congress’ antitrust subcommittee also subpoenaed emails from Apple, as well as from Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (a.k.a. Google). The majority of the probe centers around software lock-in, market share, and app store practices. But the most interesting questions put to Apple are about subjects we’re pretty familiar with: batterygate, third-party repair and Apple’s new program for it, and their pact with Amazon to remove third-party refurbishers.

Apple’s on-the-record responses (PDF) were written by an attorney, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation, expert question-dodging, and at least one flat-out incorrect statement we can spot. Let’s dig in.

The first sixteen questions relate to software functions of mobile devices. The shortest summary of Apple’s responses is: We can’t offer our users much choice, because nobody designs their software as thoughtfully as we do, and some of our favorite features can’t be ported out to other browsers or apps. Questions 12 through 16 are odd and fun, if you want to witness Congress’ quixotic quest to get Apple to admit that Google Maps is better.

The good stuff, however, comes after that. We’ll hop around a bit, because some of the questions fit together in non-sequential groups.


It’s a pretty comprehensive takedown. Notably there’s a lot of doubt about “for each year since 2009, the costs of providing repair services has exceeded the revenue generated by repairs”.
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You can’t fire Mark Zuckerberg’s kid’s kids • The New York Times

Kara Swisher:


No substantive laws govern tech. Most important, many leaders of these powerhouse companies are in effect unfireable: in order to get the boot, they essentially have to fire themselves. And guess how often that happens?

Welcome to the world of perpetual dual-class stock, an old finance trick that has been used — and now abused — with great enthusiasm by the tech giants.

The car-sharing firm Lyft has it. Dropbox has it. Snap has it. Google’s parent company Alphabet has it. WeWork’s co-founder and chief executive had so much control of the company that investors were forced to pay him a king’s ransom to go away in preparation of an IPO. (which was later abandoned). And, perhaps most important of all, Facebook has it.

In a dual-class stock structure, a company issues shares to some shareholders that give them more voting rights, and sometimes other powers. Most simply, the general public gets shares with less voting power, and sometimes with none at all (Snap made this famous). With perpetual dual-class stock, founders and their families, and perhaps other key executives, get shares with voting power that gives them control over a company forever.

Various versions of dual-class stocks have been around for a long time. The founders of the Ford Motor Company used them to protect their long-term vision against investor short-termism. It’s also been employed by family-owned media giants, like The New York Times Company, Viacom and News Corp, which arguably have mission-driven businesses.

But tech has taken the use of the dual-class stock organization to new heights. More than 50% of tech companies use it, and often from their very beginning as startups.


Always astonishing how these companies are able to go public with these skewed share structures.
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A 17-year-old posted to TikTok about China’s detention camps. She was locked out of her account • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell and Tony Romm:


Feroza Aziz started her TikTok video like a typical makeup tutorial, telling viewers she would show them how to get long eyelashes. Then the 17-year-old stopped abruptly, calling instead on viewers to start researching the harrowing conditions facing Muslims in China’s detention camps.

The surprising bit of modern satire quickly went viral on TikTok, the short-video app and global phenomenon owned by a Beijing-based tech firm. But in the hours afterward, Aziz said her TikTok profile showed she was suspended. By Tuesday, she told The Washington Post, she remained unable to access her account.

The videos, and Aziz’s suspension, have quickly touched off a public debate about one of the world’s fastest-growing social apps, including over its approach to political issues and its support of free speech in countries outside China, where its parent company ByteDance is headquartered.

TikTok representatives said Tuesday that Aziz’s account was not suspended because of her criticism of China. “TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities and did not do so in this case,” Eric Han, head of the company’s U.S. trust and safety team, said in a statement to The Post.
Instead, he said a previous account of hers had been banned because she had posted a video referencing Osama bin Laden that had violated rules about promoting terrorist content. TikTok officials said late Tuesday that Aziz’s current account was only affected because she had used a phone tied to a previous TikTok ban, and that she can use the account on other devices.


Nope. She got back into her account, and the video was gone. TikTok pushes stuff down, or out, when it wants to. This isn’t the first time that content uncomfortable to China has been driven down out of sight.
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Xiaomi growth slows in third quarter as China smartphone demand wanes • Reuters

Josh Horwitz:


Demand for smartphones has eased in China as consumers hold on to devices for longer. Shoppers have also rallied behind Huawei, boosting sales at the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, which the United States has added to a trade blacklist.

Smartphone sales still account for most of Xiaomi’s revenues but it has been promoting its internet services division, which mainly consists of online ad sales. The business, however, accounts for just 10% of total revenue – the same proportion as when the company listed its stock in August 2018.

Revenues at Xiaomi’s smartphone business fell 8% to 32.3 billion yuan in the quarter ended Sept. 30. The company sold about 32.1m phones during the period, roughly one million units fewer than a year earlier.

Total revenue rose 5.5% to 53.66 billion yuan from the same period last year, largely in line with analysts’ expectations according to Refinitiv data.

Xiaomi has looked to foreign markets to make up for the sales drop at home but that came at a price with selling and marketing expenses jumping 16% in the quarter.


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Uber’s ‘dirty little secret’: shared driver accounts • WSJ

Parmy Olson and Sarah Needleman:


Transport for London, the city’s main transportation regulator, said earlier this week it determined 14,000 Uber rides in late 2018 and early 2019 weren’t conducted by authorized drivers, but by others who had been able to substitute their photos to use a real driver’s account.

Several drivers for Uber and other ride-hailing apps, in London and elsewhere, say the practice of account sharing is an open secret, discussed in private groups on social media or on messaging apps used by drivers. Uber says account sharing is an issue globally, including in the US…

…The issue identified in London involved 43 drivers who managed to trick the Uber app into thinking they were inside special Uber offices. The offices, called Greenlight hubs, are the only place where drivers in London can update their profile photo.

Uber said it remedied the photo-fraud problem in London in October and rolled out fixes world-wide. The Uber spokeswoman, however, said it isn’t necessarily a “silver bullet.”

Drivers say photo swapping provides a simple way for one driver to temporarily transfer access to an authorized ride-hailing account to someone else. Drivers taking a vacation or an extended break, for instance, can try to rent out their Uber credentials to others. Another technique: Two or more drivers can alternate shifts on the same account.


It’s all over the place, according to the article. Any weakness is sure to be exploited mercilessly, especially for money on a service which is squeezing you dry.

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Hindustan Times uses Snapchat filters to enable sexual assault survivors to speak freely on camera • Media news

Caroline Scott:


While covering India’s first Climb Against Sexual Abuse, Yusuf Omar, mobile editor, Hindustan Times, used Snapchat’s filters to film open and honest interviews with rape survivors under the age of 18, without needing to blur or silhouette their faces.

“I thought there must be a more accessible way to disguise someone’s face using new technology, and Snapchat was just that,” said Omar.

The event, which saw 50 young people climb the Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India, in a bid to undo the taboo and stigma existing around sexual violence, was documented by Omar using just an iPhone 6 and a selfie-stick that doubled up as a monopod.

The complex face-mapping software used by Snapchat allows users to transform their appearance with a range of filters, and turn themselves into a dog, a lion, or a fire-breathing dragon, for example – usually seen as features designed to entertain.

But this technology can have “serious applications for journalism,” Omar told He found that Snapchat’s filters enabled him to get raw, emotional interviews with the young survivors taking part in the climb.

In a series of one-on-one interviews during the climb, Omar asked each interviewee to choose a filter to disguise themselves.

“Recording with a mask gave them the sense of legitimacy and security that I wasn’t going to be able to show their face, as opposed to trusting a journalist saying ‘yes, we will blur you afterwards’, so they felt empowered and in control of the narrative.”


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It’s way too easy to get a .gov domain name • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:


Earlier this month, KrebsOnSecurity received an email from a researcher who said he got a .gov domain simply by filling out and emailing an online form, grabbing some letterhead off the homepage of a small U.S. town that only has a “.us” domain name, and impersonating the town’s mayor in the application.

“I used a fake Google Voice number and fake Gmail address,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for this story but who said he did it mainly as a thought experiment. “The only thing that was real was the mayor’s name.”

The email from this source was sent from exeterri[.]gov, a domain registered on Nov. 14 that at the time displayed the same content as the .us domain it was impersonating — — which belongs to the town of Exeter, Rhode Island (the impostor domain is no longer resolving).

“I had to [fill out] ‘an official authorization form,’ which basically just lists your admin, tech guy, and billing guy,” the source continued. “Also, it needs to be printed on ‘official letterhead,’ which of course can be easily forged just by Googling a document from said municipality. Then you either mail or fax it in. After that, they send account creation links to all the contacts.”

Technically, what my source did was wire fraud (obtaining something of value via the Internet/telephone/fax through false pretenses); had he done it through the US mail, he could be facing mail fraud charges if caught.


Not something that foreign state actors would be exactly terrified about, though.
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Amazon warehouse reports show worker injuries • The Atlantic

Will Evans:


The clock was always ticking on Amazon’s promised delivery time. Dixon had to scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit her quota, she said, and Amazon always knew when she didn’t.

Dixon’s scan rate—more than 300 items an hour, thousands of individual products a day—was being tracked constantly, the data flowing to managers in real time, then crunched by a proprietary software system called ADAPT. She knew, like the thousands of other workers there, that if she didn’t hit her target speed, she would be written up, and if she didn’t improve, she eventually would be fired.

Amazon’s cutting-edge technology, unrelenting surveillance, and constant disciplinary write-ups pushed the Eastvale workers so hard that in the last holiday season, they hit a coveted target: They got a million packages out the door in 24 hours. Amazon handed out T-shirts celebrating their induction into the “Million Unit Club.”

But Dixon, 54, wasn’t around for that. She started the job in April 2018, and within two months, or nearly 100,000 items, the lifting had destroyed her back. An Amazon-approved doctor said she had bulging discs and diagnosed her with a back sprain, joint inflammation, and chronic pain, determining that her injuries were 100% due to her job. She could no longer work at Amazon. Today, she can barely climb stairs. Walking her dog, doing the dishes, getting out of her chair—everything is painful. According to her medical records, her condition is unlikely to improve.

So this holiday-shopping season, as Amazon’s ferocious speed is on full display, Dixon is at a standstill. She told Reveal in mid-October that her workers’-compensation settlement was about to run out. She was struggling to land a new job and worried she’d lose her home.

“I’m still too young to feel like I’m 90 years old,” Dixon said, sitting in the living room of her Corona, California, home, which was decorated with inspirational sayings (“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have”). “I don’t even know how I’m going to make it in a couple of months.”


The headline at the top is what search engines see; the headline humans see on the page is “Ruthless quotas at Amazon are maiming employees”. Why are robots seeing the watered-down version of this headline? Worried about hurting their feelings?

Also: with the US’s regressive healthcare system, exploitation of the poor by the rich really comes into sharp focus.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1198: climate hits crisis, farewell Clive James, TikTok bends the truth, who’ll fire Zuck (or Zuck Jr)?, and more

  1. That self-repair poster is a bit too communist-looking. It’s fun in retro way, but it evokes iffy stuff at least to old foggies like me. I’d have gone for a capitalist pig preventing a regular Jane from entering her own home. The text is on point though.

  2. Re. Xiaomi ! The mobile market is still fun, and mobiles are still exciting. In Xiaomi’s case I think the slowdown can be explained by a few things:
    – It’s working as intended. No company intentionally sells less, but X. has been scrambling to diversify from phones as fast as possible.They’re the Ikea of stuff with a CPU and everything around that.
    – At home, the pressure to help Huawei mostly took from other home brands.
    – Independently of the growth/ungrowth of the market, the easy marketshare picking are over. Stats for France show “others” (<Top 5) at 10%, and that 10 % includes all of BBK
    – Realme has popped up with the sole goal of being a foil to Redmi. That's excellent for users, but hurts Xiaomi of course. If only one or both of them could drop excessive customizations of Android ;-p
    – Xiaomi is I think scoring a few own goals. They've got too many models (6 variants of the Mi 9 flagship: SE, T, T pro, Lite, Pro…) with incoherent features (SD, jack, pinhole vs periscope, # of cams… are all random) and too short a shelf life for some models – one Redmi Note is barely available in France when the next one pops up in China or India; progress from one generation to the next is oh so very slight sometimes even a regression (Redmi 8 vs 7, Note 8 vs 7…). And they seem to have forgotten a couple of lines (ultra large Max and forward-design Mix) that had if not mass appeal, at least an aura.

    In the end, they've had a very slight drop in sales, smaller than Apple's, so they're probably not doomed ;-p I'm curious If they'll clean up their lines, and if they'll unify around a headline feature (used to be: "solid" – design perf reliability and above all battery – but everyone has that now, even iPhones last a day). Playing tag with everyone's handsets must be exhausting.

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