Start Up No.1331: eBay execs’ cockroach attack, what iOS 14 needs, Covid-19’s immunity puzzle, Quibi looks crispy, loving trackers, and more


Is the Mac mini the first ARM Mac for developers? The arguments for it are very strong. CC-licensed photo by Paul Hudson on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Antibody, antimatter? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tech firms that spy on your location join government in pandemic fight • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and Patience Haggin:

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While an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Joshua Anton created an app to prevent users from drunk dialing, which he called Drunk Mode. He later began harvesting huge amounts of user data from smartphones to resell to advertisers.

Now Mr. Anton’s company, called X-Mode Social Inc., is one of a number of little-known location-tracking companies that are being deployed in the effort to reopen the country. State and local authorities wielding the power to decide when and how to reopen are leaning on these vendors for the data to underpin those critical judgment calls.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office used data from Foursquare Labs Inc. to figure out if beaches were getting too crowded; when the state discovered they were, it tightened its rules. In Denver, the Tri-County Health Department is monitoring counties where the population on average tends to stray more than 330 feet from home, using data from Cuebiq Inc.

Researchers at the University of Texas in San Antonio are using movement data from a variety of companies, including the geolocation firm SafeGraph, to guide city officials there on the best strategies for getting residents back to work.

Many of the location-tracking firms, data brokers and other middlemen are part of the ad-tech industry, which has come under increasing fire in recent years for building what critics call a surveillance economy. Data for targeting ads at individuals, including location information, can also end up in the hands of law-enforcement agencies or political groups, often with limited disclosure to users. Privacy laws are cropping up in states including California, along with calls for federal privacy legislation like that in the European Union.

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What used to be vice has become virtue, at least temporarily. (Thank Jim for the link.)
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What immunity to COVID-19 really means • Scientific American

Stacey McKenna:

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immunity functions on a continuum. With some pathogens, such as the varicella-zoster virus (which causes chicken pox), infection confers near-universal, long-lasting resistance. Natural infection with Clostridium tetani, the bacterium that causes tetanus, on the other hand, offers no protection—and even people getting vaccinated for it require regular booster shots. On the extreme end of this spectrum, individuals infected with HIV often have large amounts of antibodies that do nothing to prevent or clear the disease.

At this early stage of understanding the new coronavirus, it is unclear where COVID-19 falls on the immunity spectrum. Although most people with SARS-CoV-2 seem to produce antibodies, “we simply don’t know yet what it takes to be effectively protected from this infection,” says Dawn Bowdish, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine and Canada Research Chair in Aging and Immunity at McMaster University in Ontario. Researchers are scrambling to answer two questions: How long do SARS-CoV-2 antibodies stick around? And do they protect against reinfection?

Early on, some people—most notably U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson (who has the virus and is currently in intensive care) and his government’s scientific adviser Patrick Vallance—touted hopes that herd immunity could be an eventual means for ending the pandemic. And although it appears that recovered COVID-19 patients have antibodies for at least two weeks, long-term data are still lacking. So many scientists are looking to other coronaviruses for answers.

Immunity to seasonal coronaviruses (such as those that cause common colds), for example, starts declining a couple of weeks after infection. And within a year, some people are vulnerable to reinfection. That observation is disconcerting when experts say it is unlikely we will have a vaccine for COVID-19 within 18 months. But studies of SARS-CoV—the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which shares a considerable amount of its genetic material with SARS-CoV-2—are more promising. Antibody testing shows SARS-CoV immunity peaks at around four months and offers protection for roughly two to three years.

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Ugh. This might become a thing: annual or biannual shots.
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Re-engine, not re-imagine • bs_labs

Brendan Shanks makes this confident prediction:

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Apple will announce a Developer Transition Kit [DTK] at WWDC, which will be available this summer. The DTK will use an A12Z (the current iPad Pro SoC), inside a Mac mini chassis. Or, I think less likely, an Apple TV chassis with added I/O.

I don’t think it will be a laptop: that would require full power management to be implemented, would be more expensive, and would result in battery life figures for semi-prototype hardware being reported all over the press. That’s really not how Apple rolls.

The iPad Pro will not be usable as a DTK. John Gruber described the reasons better than I can, but in summary: not enough RAM, and it confuses these (still separate!) products in a way that Apple never publicly would.

The first ARM Macs will go on sale in February 2021. The MacBook Air will be part of the first tranche of ARM Macs released, along with the possible return of the 12” MacBook. With the first ARM Macs, Apple will want to surprise with the power and efficiency made possible by their custom SoCs, and laptops will be the best showcase for that.

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I read this and thought: YES. It’s the perfect solution. The Mac mini comes with 8GB of storage as standard – far more than an iPad Pro, but the minimum that desktop work needs. It’s got tons of outputs ports. Apple can have them rolling off the assembly line and swap in its ARM chips. Supplies might be limited (developer demand will surely outstrip it) but there are nowhere near as many Mac developers as iOS developers.

Apple’s WWDC starts next Monday; big speech at 10am Pacific time.
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iOS 14: what the iPhone needs next • iMore

Rene Ritchie:

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I’ve been asking for always-on Lock screen complications for years. For the very same reasons complications are so informative and actionable, glanceable and tappable, on the Apple Watch. Maybe Apple’s waiting on adaptive refresh rates on future iPhone hardware to offer that power-efficiently, though.

Something else I’ve been asking for for a long time is a “GuestBoard”. Something in between the locked down PreBoard and open SpringBoard that would let you lend your phone to a person in distress to make a call or look something up on the web without also giving them access to your personal data.

I know every convenience is a hole in security, which is why we see so many Lock screen bypasses already, but the option to turn GuestBoard on would be nice to have.

PHONE FUNCTION
…When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, the phone part got fully one third of the billing, alongside wide-screen iPod and internet communicator. Back then, for most of us, the phone was the most important part and Apple had to make sure there was absolutely no way, no matter what else we were doing, that we’d ever miss a call.

Now, for many of us, the phone is just another app and we need a way to set phone call notifications to stop taking over the screen and simply become a notification like any other app.

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Not wanting the phone to take over feels like a radical step, but it would be truthful about the phone functionality – just another app. I like his other suggestions too.
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What technology has accidentally killed the most people? • Gizmodo

Daniel Kolitz:

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Show me a museum of important historical inventors and I will show you a gallery of deluded mass murderers. I’m not talking about machine gun manufacturers or nuclear scientists—those people, at least, have some sense of what they’re up to. I’m talking about the folks behind the printing press, the automobile, various kinds of boat technology. These people tried to improve the world, and succeeded, but also indirectly killed millions of people. That, at least, is the lesson of this week’s Giz Asks, in which a number of historians wrestle with the question of which technological innovation has accidentally killed the most people.

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Brilliant question, and the answers from the scientists are thought-provoking. As is always worth remembering, the invention of the ship meant the invention of the shipwreck.
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At Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman struggle with their startup—and each other • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:

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Now, the at-times uneasy partnership between Mr. Katzenberg and Ms. Whitman faces its biggest test, as Quibi Holdings LLC, which launched its streaming app in April, fights for relevance in a crowded field with its formula of movies and shows in short chapters. Its success hinges, in part, on whether the duo at the top can overcome their sometimes clashing styles and leverage their more than 80 years of combined business experience.

The problems for them to tackle are piling up: missed subscriber targets, disappointed advertisers, a patent lawsuit from a well-capitalized foe, deep-pocketed companies launching competing products and a global pandemic that has made Quibi’s main selling point—on-the-go viewing—out of step with the times.

“Meg and Jeffrey have formed a strong partnership built on trust and authenticity,” a Quibi spokeswoman said in a statement. “Jeffrey personally recruited Meg to be the CEO and employee number one, and both have widely acknowledged that Quibi exists only because of their combined decades of experience from Silicon Valley and Hollywood—and their highly complementary strengths.” The spokeswoman added, “any new founder-CEO partnership has to find its footing, and they did that over two years ago. They are good friends and admire and respect one another.”

Almost all major media giants are searching for the right formula for streaming as television programming and movies migrate rapidly online. Quibi entered the market with big financial commitments from advertisers, enviable access to cash and two brand-name corporate leaders from the worlds of movies and technology. Its promise of a new storytelling format and Quibi’s deep pockets proved irresistible for many stars. The vision was to create short programs, 10 minutes or less, that people could watch on the go.

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As Ben Thompson says about Quibi, “hadn’t they heard that Facebook is a thing now?” The tensions between Whitman and Katzenberg are only going to become worse, but that’s because Katzenberg, at least, doesn’t seem to know how people spend their spare moments. “Mobisodes” were something that carriers were suggesting would be a big thing for people at bus stops… in 2002. I recall them pitching the idea to me as the reason why people would want 3G.

You could make a good presentation today pointing out that people have lots of time to watch content while on the move, and at home they’re willing to pay for Netflix by the million, SO THEREFORE… but it’s delusional. Quibi should rename itself Toast.
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Former eBay security director arrested for harassing journalist with live cockroaches • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The plan was allegedly hatched after eBay’s now-former CEO objected to the newsletter editor’s coverage and told another executive to “take her down.”

Several of the employees charged were in upper-level positions with eBay: Baugh was eBay’s global security and resiliency director, Harville was director of global resiliency, Popp was senior manager of global intelligence, and Gilbert was a former police captain who handled security and safety at eBay’s North American offices. According to an affidavit, the team was attempting to stifle negative coverage from the newsletter, as well as insults from an anonymous commenter.

The group hatched a plan to intimidate the newsletter’s editor and her husband (who served as its publisher) starting in mid-2019. They created anonymous Twitter accounts to send insults and threats to the Massachusetts couple, then escalated this into in-person harassment. That included shipping the pig mask, a box of cockroaches, another box of fly larvae and live spiders, pornography, a book on “surviving the loss of a spouse,” a sympathy wreath from a local florist, and a “preserved fetal pig” — although the pig fetus was apparently never delivered.

The team also allegedly spied on the couple to find evidence that they were collaborating with the troll commenter, at one point planning to break into their garage and install a tracking device on their car. (They were stopped by police, who then connected them to eBay.) They even planned a strategy where eBay would officially “help” the couple investigate the harassment to gain their goodwill, a plot Baugh apparently compared to the Ridley Scott film Body of Lies.

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This is just wiiiiild. Including an email from a senior eBay executive who wrote “She is biased troll [sic] who needs to be BURNED DOWN”. A little reminiscent of the 2006 HP spying scandal but oh, so much madder.
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A conspiracy made in America may have been spread by Russia • The New York Times

Nicole Perlroth:

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In February, intelligence officials warned House lawmakers that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected, and that Russia intended to interfere with the 2020 Democratic primaries as well as the general election.

“Russia’s trolls learned it is far more effective to find the sore spots and amplify content by native English speakers than it is to spin out their own wackadoodle conspiracy theories,” said Cindy Otis, a former C.I.A. analyst who specializes in disinformation.

The conspiracy targeting Mr. Mook started a week before the Iowa caucus, when Chelsea Goodell, a web designer in Arizona, quoted a Twitter post that included a screenshot of an article from the technology news site CNET describing Democrats’ plans to use an app to tabulate votes in the caucus.

The article noted that Iowa officials were working with Harvard University’s Defending Digital Democracy program — a program Mr. Mook helped found — to protect the caucus from digital threats. Ms. Goodell claimed it was a Democratic ploy to steal the primary from Mr. Sanders.

…The conspiracy theory might have flamed out had it not been picked up by Ann Louise La Clair, a self-described Los Angeles filmmaker with a Russian Twitter following. Her tweets praising RT advertisements and protesting American airstrikes in Syria — a key Russian ally — had previously been picked up by RT, the Kremlin-owned news outlet.

She had also caught notice of @DanWals83975326, who also claimed to be a filmmaker. But his Twitter feed suggested otherwise.

He tweeted in broken English 72 times a day, on average, often in the middle of the night in the United States — just as business was getting underway in Russia. Of the 2,000 accounts he followed, many posted exclusively in Russian. He routinely shared content from RT, Sputnik, Tass and other Kremlin-owned outlets.

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We need better labelling for stuff on Twitter.
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UK readers find the government’s COVID-19 messages more misleading than actual fake news • Nieman Journalism Lab

Stephen Cushion, Maria Kyriakidou, Marina Morani, and Nikki Soo:

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while our panel could easily spot fake news, they were less aware of issues that may help them understand how the pandemic is being handled. Three in ten respondents did not know the government had failed to regularly meet its testing targets, for example.

Almost a third did not realize living in more deprived areas of England and Wales increased the likelihood of catching the coronavirus. And many participants underestimated the UK’s death toll compared to other countries and were suspicious of the UK government’s figures.

After new lockdown measures were announced in England on May 10, we also found many people did not realize they did not necessarily apply to Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Half of all respondents wrongly believed the UK government was in charge of the lockdown measures across all four nations.

When we asked participants what counted as misinformation, some respondents mentioned discredited medical claims, such as Donald Trump believing that injecting disinfectant protects against the coronavirus. But many more told us that either government claims or the media were responsible for spreading false or misleading information. As one respondent told us: “Misinformation to me would be reading an article saying schools to go back on June 1 without many details and then finding out it’s just a phased reintroduction for certain age groups. It’s panicking many parents when that didn’t need to happen, headlines should still be brief but not misleading.”

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Scientists create exotic ‘fifth state of matter’ on space station • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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With most materials, you can cycle through the states of matter by increasing heat. Plasma is most similar to a gas, but it’s ionized and electrically conductive. A Bose-Einstein condensate is a completely different animal. This material is dominated by quantum effects, and that makes them enormously difficult to create. On Earth, laboratories can only maintain Bose-Einstein condensates for a matter of milliseconds. However, research aboard the ISS has created a Bose-Einstein condensate that persisted for more than a second. 

A Bose-Einstein condensate is so named because its existence was posited almost a century ago by Albert Einstein and Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose. This exotic material only exists when atoms of certain elements are cooled to temperatures near absolute zero. At that point, clusters of atoms begin functioning as a single quantum object with both wave and particle properties. Scientists believe Bose-Einstein condensates could be the key to understanding things like dark energy and the quantum nature of the universe. 


Velocity-distribution data showing Bose-Einstein condensate formation (middle and right)

Scientists create condensates by directing atoms into microscopic magnetic “traps” that coax them into a state called quantum degeneracy. Little by little, their quantum states overlap until the condensate becomes a single wave. Scientists have to release the trap to study the material. Unfortunately, even small perturbations from the outside world disrupt a Bose-Einstein condensate. That’s why we can only maintain them for a few milliseconds on Earth. Research conducted on the space station doesn’t have to contend with gravity, allowing them to isolate the condensate more effectively. Past efforts to do the same have relied on airplanes in freefall, and instruments dropped from great heights to lessen the effects of gravity. 

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No idea why, but this sounds fabulous.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1331: eBay execs’ cockroach attack, what iOS 14 needs, Covid-19’s immunity puzzle, Quibi looks crispy, loving trackers, and more

  1. The most impressive thing about the BEC is cost. $100 million to stick one in space? That’s incredible. I was at UMD’s lab a couple of years ago, seeing their new BEC instrument. One part of it would have cost something like $5 million 10 years ago. And the same capability was being supplied by about $30K. The cost drop in BEC equipment means even small labs can set one up for experiments, or you can build a lot and use them as the basis of a Quantum Computer. So sticking one in space should allow some intriguing experiments.

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