Start Up No.1342: the US’s plane crash coronavirus response, Facebook to boost ‘new’ news, India bans TikTok, Google tries to re-Glass, and more


She won’t look so happy when she discovers that her Galaxy Flip serves up ads, even in the phone app. CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Your ad not here. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Examining the US response to the pandemic as if it were a plane crash • The Atlantic

James Fallows:

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Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

…On December 31, the open-source platform ProMED—the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases—carried a translated “Chinese media report about the outbreak.” According to all of the intelligence-community veterans I spoke with, signals like this would certainly have been enough to alert U.S. officials to a significant development. “From these early indications, a pattern would have been discernible, and we would have slewed the rest of the system to find out more about it,” one of these people said. “Particularly since we’d know what to look for. If Martians were invading, we wouldn’t know what that would look like. But we have been down this road before, with MERS and SARS and Ebola, and we know the indications that are visible and detectable.”

With cues like these, the intelligence apparatus directed more attention at the area around the city of Wuhan. “China is a very hard target,” a man who recently worked in an intelligence organization told me. “We have to be very deliberate about what we focus on”—which in normal times would be military developments or suspected espionage threats. “The bottom line is that for a place like Wuhan, you really are going to rely on open-source or informal leads.” During the Obama administration, the U.S. had negotiated to have its observers stationed in many cities across China, through a program called Predict. But the Trump administration did not fill those positions, including in Wuhan. This meant that no one was on site to learn about, for instance, the unexplained closure on January 1 of the city’s main downtown Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a so-called wet market where wild animals, live or already killed, were on sale along with fish and domesticated animals.

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The information would have been in the PDB – President’s Daily Briefing – by the start of January. But of course he doesn’t actually read that. They should send it to Fox News – then he’d get it.
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Facebook to boost news articles with original reporting in algorithm • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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The tech giant has long been criticized for not doing enough to elevate quality news over hyper-partisan noise. Now, it’s trying to get ahead of that narrative as the 2020 election inches closer.

Facebook says that in order to identify which original stories to promote, it will use artificial intelligence to analyze groups of articles on a particular story topic and identify the ones most often cited as the original source.

This won’t change the News Feed experience dramatically for most users, because Facebook will still only showcase stories from news outlets that they or their friends follow. But the tech giant will boost the more original story within that subset.

The company has been having active conversations with publishing executives, on both the business and editorial sides, to help define “original reporting” so that it can build signals into its algorithms to boost original stories, along with conducting user research.

The algorithm changes only apply to news stories. For now, the tech giant is focusing on stories in English. It hopes to expand to other languages in the future.

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This is pretty difficult; it’s always been a big criticism of Google News that it gives more prominence to articles that have been updated in the past five minutes than those which broke the story. And will the tweaked algorithm be able to recognise the rehashed stories used by the company pushing Ben Shapiro’s content?
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Surprise: YouTube TV price goes way up, effective immediately • Android Authority

John Callaham:

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Google’s YouTube TV first launched in February 2017 for the price of $34.99. Since then, the service has been adding more and more cable TV channels to its live TV streaming service. It has also seen a number of price increases. Today, Google announced the YouTube TV price has gone up by its largest amount since its launch.

In a blog post, Google revealed the YouTube TV price tag is going up by $15, from $49.99 to $64.99 a month. The price boost is going up immediately for new subscribers. Current users will see the price go up in their billing cycles or after July 30.

Along with the price increase, YouTube TV is also adding eight new cable TV channels from Viacom. They include BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, TV Land, and VH1. More Viacom channels, including BET Her, MTV2, MTV Classic, Nick Jr., NickToons, and TeenNick will be added to the service sometime in the near future. It also recently added HBO Max and Cinemax as add-on channels. HBO Max costs $14.99 a month and Cinemax costs $9.99 a month.

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Ah yes, the marketing strategy known as “boiling the frog”. Adding channels that the kids might like is a smart move. Hilariously, the explanation given for the rise in price is the cost of adding more content. Well, yes, that’s how it works. But there’s no getting away from it: YouTube TV is just another cable offering. And the price has gone up by 85% in three years.
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Ads are taking over Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones — and it needs to stop • Android Police

Max Weinbach:

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Ads in Samsung phones never really bothered me, at least not until the past few months. It started with the Galaxy Z Flip. A tweet from Todd Haselton of CNBC, embedded below, is what really caught my eye. Samsung had put an ad from DirectTV in the stock dialer app. This is really something I never would have expected from any smartphone company, let alone Samsung.

It showed up in the “Places” tab in the dialer app, which is in partnership with Yelp and lets you search for different businesses directly from the dialer app so you don’t need to Google somewhere to find the address or phone number. I looked into it, to see if this was maybe a mistake on Yelp’s part, accidentally displaying an ad where it shouldn’t have, but nope. The ad was placed by Samsung, in an area where it could blend in so they could make money.

Similar ads exist throughout a bunch of Samsung apps. Samsung Music has ads that look like another track in your library. Samsung Health and Samsung Pay have banners for promotional ads. The stock weather app has ads that look like they could be news. There is also more often very blatant advertising in most of these apps as well.

Samsung Music will give you a popup ad for Sirius XM, even though Spotify is built into the Samsung Music app. You can hide the SiriusXM popup, but only for 7 days at a time. A week later, it will be right back there waiting for you. Samsung will also give you push notification ads for new products from Bixby, Samsung Pay, and Samsung Push Service.

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Unbelievable. It’s not as if Samsung is short of the odd bob here or there. Weinbach calculates that given the number of ads, and the number of phones, this could be earning Samsung $500m just on the phones it sold in 2019. It shouldn’t, though.
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TikTok servers go down in India after government ban • Android Police

Rita El Khoury:

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After a large, sweeping ban of 59 Chinese apps was issued by the Indian government yesterday, the biggest and hottest name on that list is now officially down in India: TikTok. The app’s servers are no longer active, and VPNs don’t seem to be working for everyone to circumvent the ban.

The clock has been (excuse the easy pun) tick-tocking on this since yesterday. Earlier today, TikTok’s official Twitter account in India issued a statement saying it was in the process of complying with the government’s decision and reiterated its stance on user privacy and Chinese government meddling.

It later voluntarily removed the app from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store in India, and now seems to have disabled access to its servers from any Indian IP address. If you already have the app installed or if you sideloaded it, you’ll see a blank slate with no posts or videos.

Looking at online mentions of this, it seems that using a VPN to circumvent the ban isn’t a surefire solution either. Some users are reporting success, but most are failing to connect with that too.

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This is a novel form of warfare – which follows from a border clash between Indian and Chinese troops which left a number of Indian soldiers dead. TikTok is enormously popular in India, with hundreds of millions of downloads there. Unless the Modi government can persuade people that it’s their patriotic duty not to use it (which it quite possibly could) then there will be quite a backlash.
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Google has acquired North, the maker of Focals smart glasses • Engadget

Igor Bonifacic:

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According to The Globe and Mail, the search giant paid approximately $180m to buy the startup. Despite a $400 price cut at the start of 2019, North had reportedly sold very few of its Focals smart glasses to consumers, and the Globe says the company was running out of money before the deal came about. In April, North co-founder Stephen Lake teased that North was working on a second-generation model.

With Focals, North thought of a variety of clever solutions to some of the pain points that had come with earlier wearables like Google Glass. For instance, each pair of Focals came with a ring you would wear on your index finger. It featured a small joystick and D-pad to allow you to control the smart glasses without touching them and drawing attention to yourself.

No one could accuse you of being a “glasshole” because Focals were discrete in a way that Google Glass was not. The problem was that they were too expensive. Before North discounted them, a pair of Focals cost $1,000. You also had to get custom fitted for them at a physical retail store. All of those were significant issues for technology that did not feel indispensable.

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It’s Google Glass, the reboot. The ring for the finger is a good idea, but persuading consumers why we need smart glasses at all remains a hell of a challenge.
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Twitch temporarily bans President Trump • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Twitch has temporarily banned President Donald Trump, in the latest surprise and high-profile suspension from the streaming service. Trump’s account was banned for “hateful conduct” that was aired on stream, and Twitch says the offending content has now been removed.

One of the streams in question was a rebroadcast of Trump’s infamous kickoff rally, where he said that Mexico was sending rapists to the United States. Twitch also flagged racist comments at Trump’s recent rally in Tulsa.

“Like anyone else, politicians on Twitch must adhere to our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. We do not make exceptions for political or newsworthy content, and will take action on content reported to us that violates our rules,” a Twitch spokesperson told The Verge. The statement was originally issued last year when Trump’s channel was launched.

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Your move, Facebo–oh, never mind.
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Trump’s phone calls alarm US officials, from pandering to Putin to abusing allies and ignoring his own advisers • CNNPolitics

Carl Bernstein (yes, of Woodward and Bernstein, Watergate fame) has an in-depth piece about how lousy Trump is on phone calls with state leaders. This struck me as the most telling element:

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In one of the earliest calls between Putin and Trump, the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were in the room to listen — joining McMaster, Tillerson, Hill, and a State Department aide to Tillerson.

“The call was all over the place,” said an NSC deputy who read a detailed summary of the conversation – with Putin speaking substantively and at length, and Trump propping himself up in short autobiographical bursts of bragging, self-congratulation and flattery toward Putin. As described to CNN, Kushner and Ivanka Trump were immediately effusive in their praise of how Trump had handled the call – while Tillerson (who knew Putin well from his years in Russia as an oil executive), Hill and McMaster were skeptical.

Hill — author of a definitive biography of Putin – started to explain some of the nuances she perceived from the call, according to CNN’s sources, offering insight into Putin’s psychology, his typical “smooth-talking” and linear approach and what the Russian leader was trying to achieve in the call. Hill was cut off by Trump, and the President continued discussing the call with Jared and Ivanka, making clear he wanted to hear the congratulatory evaluation of his daughter and her husband, rather than how Hill, Tillerson or McMaster judged the conversation.

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Geekbench results for the Apple Silicon Developer Transition Kit surface online • Macworld

Jason Cross:

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For Mac apps that aren’t updated to be compatible Apple silicon, the new Macs will use an automatic emulation tool called Rosetta to translate apps made for Intel processors. And now that the DTKs are starting to ship to developers, we have an early look at what kind of performance that might give us.

The Geekbench results database currently shows eight benchmark results for the DTK. [It’s 28 at the time of editing, but probably going to go up by the time you read it.] Since Geekbench has not yet been made available as a new universal Apple/Intel Mac app, these results show what the DTK is capable of when running an app with the Rosetta translation.

The scores generally fall into the low 800s for single-core performance and around 2,800 or so for multi-core performance.

How does that stack up to other products? That same A12Z processor, running native code on an iPad Pro, scores about 1,100 for single-core and 4,700 for multi-core. The iPad Pro is roughly 25% higher on single-core performance and 40% higher on multi-core performance.

The latest MacBook Air, with its entry-level processor, scores around 1,100 for single-core and 2,200 for multi-core. And an entry-level Mac mini (which hasn’t been updated since 2018) delivers a score in the high 800s for single-core performance and around 2,500 for multi-core.

So the Mac Developer Transition Kit, running an Intel-based benchmark under Rosetta emulation/translation, takes a big hit compared to native performance. But Apple’s chips are so fast that it still runs roughly in the same ballpark as an entry-level Mac mini from 2018, or an entry-level MacBook Air from this year.

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Apple told developers not to upload benchmarks. Of course people ignored that. These benchmarks don’t even begin to give you an idea of what an ARM-based Mac will be able to do. This is a two-year-old processor running emulation software. For ARM-native code on new processors, it’s going to fly.
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Is it safe to go to a restaurant? JP Morgan finds link between restaurant spending, COVID outbreaks • Fortune

Anne Sraders:

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The firm analyzed spending by 30 million Chase credit and debit cardholders and coronavirus case data from Johns Hopkins University, and found that spending patterns from a few weeks ago “have some power in predicting where the virus has spread since then,” analyst Jesse Edgerton wrote Thursday. The study found that the “level of spending in restaurants three weeks ago was the strongest predictor of the rise in new virus cases over the subsequent three weeks,” in line with the firm’s recent studies using OpenTable data.

Notably, JPMorgan found that ‘card-present’ transactions in restaurants (meaning the person was dining in, not ordering online) were “particularly predictive” to a later spread of the virus.

And interestingly, the JPMorgan study also found that increased spending in supermarkets correlated to a slower spread of the virus. Analyst Edgerton wrote that the correlation hints that “high levels of supermarket spending are indicative of more careful social distancing in a state.” The firm pointed out that as of three weeks ago, supermarket spending in states like New York and New Jersey, which are now seeing a decrease in cases, was up 20% or more from a year ago, whereas states now seeing a surge like Texas and Arizona saw supermarket spending up less than 10%.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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