Start Up No.1231: China struggles with social media contagion, why Hollywood loves sequels, Avast under scrutiny, the IoT problem, and more


Ten years ago, Apple freaked Microsoft out by doing what Microsoft had done. But better. CC-licensed photo by Mark Botham on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Catch it, kill it, bin it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As virus spreads, anger floods Chinese social media • The New York Times

Raymond Zhong:

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Recently, someone following the coronavirus crisis through China’s official news media would see lots of footage, often set to stirring music, praising the heroism and sacrifice of health workers marching off to stricken places.

But someone following the crisis through social media would see something else entirely: vitriolic comments and mocking memes about government officials, harrowing descriptions of untreated family members and images of hospital corridors loaded with patients, some of whom appear to be dead.

The contrast is almost never so stark in China. The government usually keeps a tight grip on what is said, seen and heard about it. But the sheer amount of criticism — and the often clever ways in which critics dodge censors, such as by referring to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, as “Trump” or by comparing the outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe — have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message.

In recent days, critics have pounced when officials in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, wore their protective masks incorrectly. They have heaped scorn upon stumbling pronouncements. When Wuhan’s mayor spoke to official media on Monday, one commenter responded, “If the virus is fair, then please don’t spare this useless person.”…

…“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. “It is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative.”

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This is going to be quite the challenge for the Chinese government.
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Coronavirus 2019-nCoV • ArcGIS

You wanted a live map of confirmed coronavirus cases, with a dashboard for different countries and a map too? At your command. (Depending on how much we trust the Chinese figures.)
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The iPad at 10: a new product category defined by apps • MacStories

John Voorhees:

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According to an Engadget story published the day before the iPad was revealed, tablet rumours stretched back to at least the early 2000s.

It wasn’t until the iPhone was released in 2007 that the rumors really picked up in earnest, though. At the time, a small army of bloggers covering Apple competed for scoops by combing through patent filings, domain registrations, and any other scrap they could get their hands on, looking for evidence of a tablet. It was the waning days of the ‘golden age’ of Apple rumors, before Apple ‘doubled down on secrecy.’ The same competition that fuelled the rumour mill led to a cottage industry in device mockups that sometimes got passed off as ‘spy shots’ of real hardware.

It was an environment that fed on itself, spawning crazy speculation. The rumors and mockups may seem like unimportant historical relics now, but they’re still instructive in understanding the expectations going into the iPad’s launch and a lot of fun to revisit. Here is a collection of some of my favourites: [images on site].

Looking back at these mockups, what strikes me is how many imagined a tablet that would run OS X. Over and over, the mockups envisioned a windowed environment with a Mac-like UI. Even though the iPhone had been out for over two years, surprisingly few mockups approached the design with the iPhone as their starting point. Instead, it was assumed that a tablet with a screen closer to the size of a Mac would naturally inherit the Mac’s OS too. Surely a device with room for windows would run something more than just iPhone OS.

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Ten years of the iPad. Steve Sinofsky, who was in charge of Windows at the time, wrote about it too.
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Hollywood ‘sequelitis’ and why pay-TV follows a different script • Financial Times

Chris Campbell and Patrick Mathurin:

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The decades-long trend of “sequelitis” is striking a chord globally. Of the top ten grossing films of 2019, all were either franchise entries, sequels, remakes or spin-offs. Avengers: Endgame, one of the year’s three instalments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero franchise, scored a record-breaking $1bn opening weekend and generated worldwide box-office receipts of nearly $2.8bn. At about seven times its production budget, this makes it one of the most successful films ever.

“The reason that the studios rely so heavily on the sequel is because generally the odds are with you, if you are creating a franchise,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at ComScore, a data analytics company. “There’s a wellspring of potential box office takings coming from every movie that’s part of that universe.”

The successes of these franchises — and the changing pattern of cinema attendance — have spurred the studios to focus their output.

In the 1950s, large crowds would go to the cinema on a weekly basis; today audiences are going less frequently. Greater competition for cinema goers’ leisure time, the rise of on-demand entertainment without the constraints of a static broadcasting schedule, and fewer local screens mean that viewers may not risk paying for something unfamiliar.

“Cinema is now where you go to play safe,” says Peter Miskell, professor of international business and media history at Henley Business School. “You want to be fairly assured that you’re going to be getting content that you’re going to enjoy. Whereas you can take a bit more risk with TV and streaming services and that’s where a bit more innovation is happening.”

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Completely makes sense, as long as the streaming service can keep ahead of its debt.
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Leaked documents expose the secretive market for your web browsing data • VICE

Joseph Cox (VICE) and Michael Kan (PC Mag):

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An antivirus program used by hundreds of millions of people around the world is selling highly sensitive web browsing data to many of the world’s biggest companies, a joint investigation by Motherboard and PCMag has found. Our report relies on leaked user data, contracts, and other company documents that show the sale of this data is both highly sensitive and is in many cases supposed to remain confidential between the company selling the data and the clients purchasing it.

The documents, from a subsidiary of the antivirus giant Avast called Jumpshot, shine new light on the secretive sale and supply chain of peoples’ internet browsing histories. They show that the Avast antivirus program installed on a person’s computer collects data, and that Jumpshot repackages it into various different products that are then sold to many of the largest companies in the world. Some past, present, and potential clients include Google, Yelp, Microsoft, McKinsey, Pepsi, Sephora, Home Depot, Condé Nast, Intuit, and many others. Some clients paid millions of dollars for products that include a so-called “All Clicks Feed,” which can track user behavior, clicks, and movement across websites in highly precise detail.

Avast claims to have more than 435 million active users per month, and Jumpshot says it has data from 100 million devices. Avast collects data from users that opt-in and then provides that to Jumpshot, but multiple Avast users told Motherboard they were not aware Avast sold browsing data, raising questions about how informed that consent is.

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I’ll go with.. not very informed? Antivirus: the only thing worse is viruses.
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IoT trouble: the Sonos example — and more • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

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Today, grafting a microprocessor and a Wi-Fi radio onto a power plug is child’s play (and a dollar) for the engineers of an appliance maker. Smartplugs that work with Alexa or Google Assistant are plentiful and inexpensive on Amazon, going for as low as $19.98 for a two pack. What will happen when these plugs need updates for bugs and security patches, or when the manufacturer wants to force us to buy a newer, more capable model? This will happen to smart bulbs, locks, cameras, thermostats, dishwashers…

And this is just the beginning of the Consumer IoT fun. The ongoing adoption of 5G technology will bring improvements and another layer of disorganization.

I’m hardly hostile to technology, to the contrary. My professional life in the tech world — more than 50 years — has been enormously fun, I’ve met remarkable individuals and have seen unimaginable advances such as supercomputers in our pockets. But I now wonder. It was one thing to fight a cranky operating system or application on one’s laptop. It created a culture, a folklore. Managing the dozens of devices in a smarthome is a set of tasks for which we are ill-prepared, it’s not more of the same.

Nor are we prepared for what happens to our privacy when the IoT devices that share information about our activities become “required” by market forces or, worse, mandated by new laws and regulations.

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As he says: the complexity now has grown geometrically. That’s a problem – yours, mine, everyone’s.
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Google halts paid-for Chrome extension updates amid fraud surge: Web Store in lockdown ‘due to the scale of abuse’ • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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Developers began reporting that they’d received “Spam and Placement in the Store” warnings on January 19, and more reports followed over the next few days.

In an email to The Register, Jeff Johnson, who runs Lapcat Software, which makes macOS and iOS audio apps and a privacy extension for Chrome and Safari called StopTheMadness, said that existing extensions remain accessible in the Chrome Web Store, but updates and new extensions are being rejected.

“I submitted a minor bug fix update on January 19, and I received an email on January 22 from Chrome Web Store Developer Support titled ‘Chrome Web Store: Removal notification for StopTheMadness,'” he explained, noting that the extension was not removed but the update was rejected.

“There have been many complaints in Google’s Chromium Extensions forum in the past few weeks, but Google provided no useful information until now.”

Johnson said that he has a Safari app extension in the Mac App Store and while developer support isn’t great, the Chrome Web Store is worse and feels understaffed – a charge other software makers have made.

“The Mac App Store usually reviews my updates within 24 hours, and if something goes wrong, I can contact support and get a response within a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “With the Chrome Web Store, however, my updates can take up to a week to get reviewed, and if something goes wrong, you’re almost hopelessly lost.”

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Seems to be a followup to this Register story from two weeks ago.
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DNA collection at the border threatens the privacy of all Americans • The New York Times

Daniel I. Morales, Natalie Ram and Jessica L. Roberts:

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How we treat the people that cross our borders speaks to our identity as a nation. Immigrants are Americans of the future and the criteria we use to select or bar immigrants reflect our aspirations for the society we wish to become. The new DNA collection program may yet revive darker, eugenic impulses in immigration history. Modern, quota-based immigration law was born of a desire to improve the “quality” of America’s racial stock by drastically limiting immigration from peoples “scientifically” believed to be less intelligent than other groups. Italians and other southern European immigrants, for example, were granted fewer visas based on this false science.

It is a small leap from requiring immigrants to submit their DNA to verify familial relationships, or to mitigate future criminal risk (the pretexts the government has cited to justify its recent policy change) to requiring DNA screening of immigrants for health, disability, intelligence or disease. These screens for “fitness”— likely based on questionable science — could ultimately be used to deny entry into the United States or, if discovered later, as a basis for expulsion. Regardless of reliability we would not support genetic screening for fitness. Courts have usually failed to protect immigrants from such impulses, so it is up to citizens to learn from this history and decide that building a society this way is unacceptable.

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The point that DNA could be used to deny entry, and then might be expanded to the general population, is a good one. If you think that it couldn’t possibly happen, look at the utter inability of the American system to rein in Trump (or his mini-me, Stephen Miller), and cast that forward a few years.
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Monopolies cost Americans $300 a month. We’re no longer the land of free markets • The Guardian

Thomas Philippon is a professor of finance at New York University:

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The polarization of the political debate is partly the result of ignorance. The American left sees Europe as an El Dorado of free healthcare, free education and workers’ rights. The American right sees it as a socialistic nightmare with no growth and no innovation. They’re both wrong, and the result is misguided policies and time wasted tilting at windmills.

But we are also witnessing a justified backlash against the corruption of American free markets. A powerful system of lobbying and campaign finance contributions is largely responsible for the growing monopolization of the US economy.

Implementing a pro-competition policy in America will be no easy task. Incumbent companies maintain their power with an array of unfair tactics to exclude rivals – acquisitions of nascent competitors, heavy lobbying of regulators, and lavish expenditures on campaign donations. To be successful in today’s economy, a pro-competition policy would need to tackle the new monopolies as well as the old ones – the Googles and Facebooks and the pharmaceutical and telecom companies alike.

The payoffs would be large, however. Based on my research, I estimate that monopolies cost the median American household about $300 a month. Taking into account all the other inefficiencies monopolies entail, I estimate that the lack of competition deprives American workers of about $1.25tn of labor income every year. No wonder, then, that American workers are angry.

There is also another ironic lesson for Europe. The quality of existing European institutions is partly due to the beneficial influence of the UK. Historically France and Germany did not have a tradition of strong and independent regulators able to stand up to lobbyists and resist short term political pressures. The European Central Bank and the EU Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) have demonstrated that they can. These institutions, while imperfect, are a public good that benefits all European citizens.

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$300 a month. And that’s before you get to sensible healthcare. (Philippon has a whole book where he shows that the cost to the US economy is around a trillion dollars annually.)
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Here’s why I think the refresh rate wars are dumb • Android Authority

Suzana Dalul:

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the culprits were the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Pixel 4, both featuring 90Hz displays. Many manufacturers have followed their example, with a number of Android devices now featuring the faster and smoother screens. But the race to have the highest refresh rate looks like yet another manufacturer tactic to have the best specs on paper.

It is easy to argue that high refresh rates are not necessary for the average consumer. My colleague Ryan’s video certainly demonstrated that most people cannot tell the difference between 60Hz and 90Hz at a glance. But many smartphone features aren’t terribly practical — they exist because people want to buy phones that have them. Many people don’t take advantage of the variety of lenses many smartphone cameras come with, for example, but they are a selling point regardless. So, we will move on to better and more compelling arguments against the refresh rate wars.

First, we can’t deny that a higher refresh rate improves the overall visual experience. Anyone who has made the switch from a 60Hz PC monitor to 144Hz or higher can attest that there is no going back. Once you get acclimated to the smoother visuals the new monitor offers, everything else feels sluggish. Movement is less blurry and you get a competitive edge when playing games too. Yet, on a smartphone, which unlike a monitor isn’t constantly plugged in, there are many more drawbacks.

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Never underestimate OEMs’ desire to have a bigger number – any number, no matter how meaningless – for the spec sheet, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1231: China struggles with social media contagion, why Hollywood loves sequels, Avast under scrutiny, the IoT problem, and more

  1. Chrome Web Store: on a related note, my mom’s (rural, lots of seniors, lots of English expats) supermarket has stopped selling prepaid cards (iStore, PlayStore, Amazon…). Manager told me it’s because too much fraud.

  2. Re Cinema playing it safe: I remember reading a similar article in The Economist over 20 yrs ago. Semi-true: blockbusters are playing it self, you still have art house movies. But TV series have been more specialized and complicated than movies for a while. Six seasons and a movie !

  3. iPad:
    The “Slate” windows PC that came before that were fragile, mostly impractical, and very expensive.
    The Archos 4xx slates from 2006 were mostly media players, I don’t remember if the browser was terribad or if the whole web was at the time. Probably both. And no 3rd-party apps IIRC.
    The iPad moved the needle very far back to the low-features zone though. 2 yrs later the Galaxy Note 10.1 didn’t take any of the simplicity away, and added pen support, split-screen and PIP windowing, internal and USB mass storage, USB/BT keyboard and mouse support,… The software was a bit ahead of the hardware (the pen lagged a bit, multitasking was often slow), but it’s funny to see how iPad took 9 years to evolve those capabilities. Not sure how much is polishing the execution, and how much is conservatism or upgrade treadmill.

    Hopefully laptop/desktop “tablets” won’t take as long to evolve. Most home users around me want an iOS/Android PC.

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