Start Up No.1289: Facebook scales down Libra, GoPro slashes workforce, China’s internet cafes stay shut, the coming crash for US state funding, and more


What’s the future for the WHO? Change its funding, or change its structure? CC-licensed photo by UN Geneva 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.

Why the World Health Organization failed • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci:

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Trump’s ploy to defund the WHO is a transparent effort to distract from his administration’s failure to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be disastrous too. Many nations, especially poor ones, currently depend on the WHO for medical help and supplies. But it is also true that in the run-up to this pandemic, the WHO failed the world in many ways. However, President Trump’s move is precisely the kind of political bullying that contributed to the WHO’s missteps.

The WHO failed because it is not designed to be independent. Instead, it’s subject to the whims of the nations that fund it and choose its leader. In July 2017, China moved aggressively to elect its current leadership. Instead of fixing any of the problems with the way the WHO operates, Trump seems to merely want the United States to be the bigger bully.

Fixing the WHO is crucial, because we desperately need well-functioning global health institutions. But that requires a correct diagnosis of the problem. There is an alternate timeline in which the leadership of the WHO did its job fully and properly, warning the world in time so that effective policies could be deployed across the planet. Instead, the WHO decided to stick disturbingly close to China’s official positions, including its transparent cover-ups. In place of a pandemic that is bringing global destruction, just maybe we could have had a few tragic local outbreaks that were contained…

…Imagine the WHO took notice of the information it received from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Imagine the WHO also recognized that whistleblower doctors in Wuhan were being threatened with jail time. It would have realized that something important was happening, something worth investigating. It could have immediately, but politely, demanded access to the region around Wuhan and its hospitals.

This alternate timeline does not ignore realpolitik. China is not a nation known for cooperating with international agencies when it doesn’t want to. (This tendency is not specific to China. A U.S. law nicknamed the “Hague Invasion Act” threatens to invade the International Criminal Court in The Hague should any U.S. service member be indicted.) If China refused access, as it likely would have, the expectation isn’t that the WHO officials would just get up and yell “Freedom!” at China’s leadership. But there was a path that would recognize the constraints of international diplomacy, but still put the health of billions above all else.

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Life hasn’t returned to normal for China’s internet cafes • Abacus

Karen Chiu:

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While cybercafes are largely considered a primitive vestige of the early internet age, they have survived in parts of Asia as watering holes for avid gamers. For less than a dollar an hour, patrons can relax on plush chairs while waging battles on League of Legends and drifting race cars on QQ Speed.

With national numbers hovering between 130,000 and 150,000 in recent years, Chinese cybercafes aren’t exactly a booming industry. But they’ve continued to draw gamers looking for a cheap place to hang out and blow off steam. Many say they come for the atmosphere and camaraderie.

“How is playing by yourself at home as comfortable as playing in an internet cafe with friends?” a Zhihu user asked in response to a question about why people would still pay for a seat in front of a computer when most already have a PC at home.

“There’re a lot of people at my house, lots of noise and things going on… And my parents tend to complain a lot when they see me gaming all day long, so I might as well go out and play.”

At a time when social distancing is becoming the new norm, though, gathering places like internet cafes are of particular concern to authorities. In Hubei, whose capital city Wuhan was the center of the coronavirus outbreak, cybercafes are among nine types of indoor facilities that are specifically banned from reopening until the pandemic ends.

In Tianjin, a port city in northeast China, cybercafes are still closed, according to netizens.

“Today is the 84th day of cybercafe closure,” wrote a Weibo user on Wednesday.

“Can Tianjin’s cybercafes ever reopen?” asked another.

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Nothing is able to get back to normal.
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GoPro cuts more than 20% of workforce, changes sales strategy • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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GoPro Inc. said it will cut more than 200 jobs, shift the company’s sales operation to market its digital adventure cameras directly to consumers and withdraw its 2020 financial guidance in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The operational changes, staff reductions of more than 20% and cuts to office space will save $100m in 2020, and reduce expenses next year to $250m, the San Mateo, California-based company said Wednesday in a statement. GoPro said its shift to direct sales will mean a stronger focus on its website. The company said it still will use retail outlets for a small number of regions where such sales are preferred by consumers…

…While withdrawing its forecast, GoPro said its expects to report first-quarter revenue of $119 million and an adjusted loss in the mid-30c a share. The company sold 700,000 cameras in the period, and said the staff and operational changes won’t affect its 2020 product road map, which will include new devices and services.

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GoPro was struggling a bit before this. Now it’s trying to market an adventure travel camera in a world where most people can’t travel or, to a large extent, leave their homes.
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Facebook-backed Libra cryptocurrency project is scaled back • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper and Mike Isaac:

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on Thursday, Facebook and its partners rolled out a less ambitious design for Libra after the effort encountered numerous hurdles and heavy regulatory scrutiny.

No longer is the group focused on making Libra the basis of a new global financial system where Facebook could essentially play the roles of a central bank and Wall Street.

In a sign of the change, the Libra project will now focus on creating a more traditional payment network in which coins will be tied to a local currency, somewhat like the digital dollars in a PayPal account. While Libra will also have a coin backed by multiple national currencies, which was the focus of the initial design documents, that will be less prominent.

Members of the Libra Association, a Swiss-based group that Facebook created to oversee the project, said the shifts were a response to a global outpouring of opposition to the cryptocurrency…

…In a new Libra white paper, the association said it would create multiple coins, each backed by a different national currency, in order to make local commerce easier. A separate coin backed by multiple currencies would be useful for moving money between countries.

The association is also abandoning plans for Libra to take the distinctive open architecture of Bitcoin, one of the best-known cryptocurrencies, which has a so-called permissionless quality that allows anyone to build on it. Such a design had led to widespread concerns that terrorists and others could use Libra for underhanded reasons.

Libra will now be a closed system in which only partners with the approval of the association can build infrastructure, such as wallets, for the coins.

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This basically isn’t Libra at all any more – which I’m fine with. In its original form, it could have destabilised the entire global financial system.
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Facebook will start steering users who interact with coronavirus misinformation to WHO • NBC News

Brandy Zarodny and Ben Collins:

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Facebook will begin to alert users after they’ve been exposed to misinformation about the coronavirus, the company announced Thursday, the latest in a series of actions meant to curtail the spread of wrong or misleading claims related to the pandemic.

Users who have liked, commented on or reacted to coronavirus misinformation that has been flagged as “harmful” by Facebook and removed will now be directed to a website debunking coronavirus myths from the World Health Organization.

The announcement came in a blog post written by Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity.

“We want to connect people who may have interacted with harmful misinformation about the virus with the truth from authoritative sources in case they see or hear these claims again off of Facebook,” Rosen wrote.

The new alert will not identify the specific post containing harmful misinformation, according to a Facebook spokesperson, who said the company was relying on research that shows repeated exposure — even in fact checks — can sometimes reinforce misinformed beliefs.

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Not identifying the post is tricky, isn’t it. You don’t know what you’ve done wrong, only that it’s something.
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FT Interview: Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable • Financial Times

Victor Mallet and Roula Khalaf:

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There is a realisation, Mr Macron says, that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change. People have come to understand “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

Mr Macron likened the fear of suffocating that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

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Why the Apple iPhone SE doesn’t matter • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

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New smartphones have been a tough sell for some time. People in the United States and many other countries are waiting longer to replace their phones — for Americans, it’s more than three years on average.

Pick your favorite explanation for this phenomenon. Many people don’t want to pay the going rate of $1,000 or more for phones with all the bells and whistles. To some people, even the features that are supposed to be exciting feel blah.

The best explanation for the smartphone sales malaise is a simple one: This is what happens when products go from new and novel to normal. Products get more reliable and resilient as they become mass market, and new models don’t feel so different from the old. Apart from the die-hards, most people lose interest in the latest and greatest. The hot new thing feels…fine.

In Brian [Chen’s] assessment of last fall’s iPhone models, he said there was no rush to buy a new phone if your current one is less than a few years old. (Yes, a professional tech reviewer suggested you might NOT need to buy something.)

The shift from wow to shrug happened with cars, personal computers and televisions. More than a decade after modern smartphones hit the market, we’ve lost our zing for those pocket computers, too. Until economic conditions stabilize, our zing will probably be even less zingy than normal.

A smartphone is now a refrigerator. We need it, but we don’t replace our current model when a new ice-making feature comes out. This is not great for companies with shiny new phones to sell. For the rest of us, it’s fine.

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Smartphones have been an utter commodity for years. The problem is, there’s nothing to replace them as an object of fascination: AR glasses are years away (perhaps more now than before).
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Apple is tweaking how MacBooks charge to extend battery lifespan • The Verge

Dieter Bohn and Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Apple is introducing a new feature in most modern MacBooks called “Battery health management.” It’s going to be available today for developers and will roll into the future macOS Catalina 10.15.5 update.

On by default, the new feature is intended to extend the overall lifespan of your laptop battery by reducing the rate of chemical aging. It does so by not charging the battery all the way up to the maximum in certain cases. Fully charging a battery puts a strain on it that can more rapidly reduce its longevity over time. Some phones now avoid charging all the way to 100% until just before you wake up for this reason.

What that means for your laptop is that in certain cases, seeing 100% battery life in your menu bar may not necessarily mean it’s the maximum your battery could charge to. Instead of meaning that it’s charged to 100% of what the battery could take, it will now mean it’s charged to 100% of what the battery should take to maximize it’s lifespan.

Apple says that it will of course ensure that it doesn’t have a major impact on battery life, but would not say what percentage a charge may be reduced…

…The feature will apply to any MacBook that supports Thunderbolt 3. That includes any MacBook Pro since 2016 and MacBook Air models since 2018.

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Look! Technology!
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Thread by @ehundman: Recent attempts to blame China for SARS-CoV-2 have argued that it could have been released from a poorly regulated laboratory in Wuhan • Threadreader App

Eric Hundman is an assistant professor at the NY University in Shanghai:

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The “in-lab evolution” argument is theoretically possible, as the Nature researchers note. But they also note that finding similar coronaviruses in pangolins with “near identical” structural features means SARS-CoV-2 almost certainly evolved in the wild.

They also note “a hypothetical generation of SARS-CoV-2 by cell culture…would have required prior isolation of a progenitor virus with very high genetic similarity, which has not been described.” In other words, some intermediate steps needed to get to cultures are missing.

In summary, the authors conclude that because we can see “all notable SARS-CoV-2 features..in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

There are urgent, legitimate questions about the COVID-19 pandemic’s emergence, including why Beijing withheld genetic data and downplayed the outbreak’s severity for weeks. But available evidence indicates it almost certainly did not emerge due to a laboratory accident.

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The whole thread is worth reading (neatly rolled up at that page), but this is the meat. If you ever need a Twitter thread put into one place, by the way, reply to any tweet in the thread with “unroll”, and it will reply with a link to the whole thread in one place.
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The record drop in retail sales will butcher state and local government budgets • Poynter

Al Tompkins:

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The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that local governments throughout the entire region are “staring at sizeable budget deficits.” In California, Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, severely restricts how much local governments can take in from property taxes, so sales taxes became much more important. Mass transit systems in the area, for instance, depend on a half-cent sales tax.

Look at what is unfolding in Haywood County, North Carolina, which has far fewer options to pay for local government services. The county is trying to plan a 2020-2021 budget to begin July 1. Any drop in tourism means sales taxes dry up, too. Some of the communities in that county say they anticipate a tougher economy than they saw even in the 2008-2009 recession.

If there is a worse bet than placing your future on sales tax revenue, it is those states that counted on $50+ per barrel oil prices. The New York Times reported:

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Some of the most drastic tax revenue losses have occurred in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska and Louisiana, which rely heavily on taxing oil and gas. Oklahoma based its initial budget projections on $55-a-barrel oil; lately, the price has been less than half that. The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association estimates that for every dollar decline in the price of oil, the state loses $85 million in revenue.

“The things we thought would keep us from hitting the edge of the fiscal cliff — oil prices rebounding, production coming up dramatically — those prospects look awfully dim right now,” Pat Pitney, the Alaska Legislature’s chief budget analyst, who was budget director to former Gov. Bill Walker, recently told the Alaska Public Media news site. “None of us knows the future. But the signs are way less optimistic than they were just a few short months ago.”

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Once again, the second-order effects – besides the “business is dead” – are going to echo for years.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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