Start Up No.1367: how to escape an island, coal use slumps further, Apple’s Schiller steps aside, Google’s Fitbit acquisition investigated, and more

The UK Home Office is to stop using an algorithm deemed ‘racist’ for processing visa applications. CC-licensed photo by Jon Evans on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not stranded (yet). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Missing sailors stranded on Pacific island saved by giant SOS in the sand • The Guardian

Ben Doherty:


Three Micronesian sailors stranded on a remote Pacific island have been found alive and well after a rescue team spotted their giant SOS message written into the sand on a beach.

Australian and US military aircraft found the three men on tiny Pikelot Island, nearly 200km west of where they’d set off. Rescuers said they were “in good condition” with no significant injuries.

The men had been missing for three days after their seven-metre skiff ran out of fuel and strayed off course.

Authorities in the US territory of Guam raised the alarm on Saturday after the men failed to complete a 42km trip from Poluwat to Pulap atolls.

Australia’s HMAS Canberra was sailing between Australia and Hawaii when it received the call for help.

On Sunday, a helicopter from the Canberra spotted the giant SOS, close to a small makeshift shelter on the beach, and it landed on the tiny island to check the men’s condition and give them food and water.


I find this really heartening. I’d only ever seen it in Tintin-style cartoons, but it’s great to know that it really works in practice. Next time, lads, please also set fire to things inside the letters so it shows at night.
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We won! Home Office to stop using racist visa algorithm • Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants


We are delighted to announce that the Home Office has agreed to scrap its ‘visa streaming’ algorithm, in response to legal action we launched with tech-justice group Foxglove.

From Friday, 7 August, Home Secretary Priti Patel will suspend the “visa streaming” algorithm “pending a redesign of the process,” which will consider “issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality” in automated visa applications.


“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates. This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”


–Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI

Today’s win represents the UK’s first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office’s decision effectively concedes the claim.


Small – and not-so-small – victories. Important to challenge this, but you have to know that these systems are being used in order to mount the challenge. That’s the real problem. Because you know that once you dig into them, they’ll be rotten with assumptions.
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UK coal use to fall to lowest level since industrial revolution • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:


UK coal use is likely to soon fall back to levels last seen during the industrial revolution, Carbon Brief analysis of official figures suggests.

The UK used 49 million tonnes of coal in 2014 according to Carbon Brief estimates. That’s more than a 20% reduction compared to the previous year, and the joint lowest coal use in  records going back to the 1850s. Only 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, had equally low coal consumption.

There are several reasons to expect coal use to continue falling this year, suggesting a clear historic low is in store for 2015.

Getting out of coal as quickly as possible is necessary in developed countries, to prevent dangerous global warming. To assess UK progress we’ve looked back at its changing relationship with coal, and what that means for the climate.


A longer-term view shows that we’re now using as little (or as much) coal as when Stephenson got his patent for the Rocket steam engine. I guess there was a lot being used to heat houses.
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Greg Joswiak replaces Phil Schiller as head of Apple marketing • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:


Apple’s longtime marketing chief, Phil Schiller, is stepping into a somewhat smaller role after decades with the company. Schiller is dropping his role as senior vice president of worldwide marketing, but he’ll remain in charge of the App Store and Apple Events. Greg Joswiak, previously the head of product marketing, will take over Schiller’s former position as Apple’s overall marketing leader.

Marketing is a huge role inside of Apple that goes beyond simply advertising products, so this marks a significant change within the company. As Apple puts it, the marketing division is “responsible for Apple’s product management and product marketing, developer relations, market research, business management, as well as education, enterprise, and international marketing.” Joswiak has been in Apple leadership roles for more than two decades, and he’s led Apple’s worldwide product marketing for the last four years.

Schiller has been with Apple since 1997, helping to steer the company from one of its lowest points to the technology juggernaut that it is today. While he’s been in charge of marketing, Schiller is also known for his involvement in Apple’s hardware, often presenting new products — like the previous Mac Pro — onstage at events.


Schiller has been a crucial member of Apple. Incredible to think that he joined at the age of 27, and this year turned 60. More than three decades, from just after its darkest hour to its biggest. And he’s been involved in crucial decisions: he was one of the people who lobbied Steve Jobs to allow third-party developers to create the App Store in 2007. Jobs was Apple, but Schiller in many ways is even more the embodiment of Apple: outwardly calm, amiable, and prepared, but behind his eyes always working the angles and looking to the future. I interviewed him many times on and off the record and never felt I was being shortchanged.
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Last hurrah? 27-inch iMac get Intel processor upgrade, all-SSD storage, T2 chip – Six Colors

Jason Snell:


At Apple’s developer conference in June, Tim Cook said that the company still had Macs with Intel processors in its pipeline. It must be rapidly filling with Macs with Apple silicon, but on Tuesday that pipeline disgorged a new Intel-based 27-inch iMac with a bunch of technical improvements, while retaining the prices of previous models.

For those expecting a redesign to the exterior of the iMac, which has been largely unchanged for many years now, it’s clear that any major rethinking of Apple’s venerable all-in-one is going to have to wait for the Apple silicon era. Apple’s not doing what it did with the iMac back during the last processor transition and redesigning the exterior just before swapping chips, and future Mac historians will be thankful for that.

…As for the future, is this the last Intel Mac we’ll see? There’s no way to tell, though reading between the lines, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some more Intel-based Mac releases as Apple progresses through its two-year-long processor transition. But I’d wager good money that the next time we see an iMac update, there won’t be an Intel processor at its heart. And perhaps it will look appreciably different, too.


My guess for the order of Apple Silicon (ARM) updates is: MacBook, MacBook Pro 13in, Mac mini, MacBook Pro 16in, iMacs, MacBook Air, Mac Pro.

The Air as the last laptop to join because it’s insanely profitable once they’ve locked down the design, and they only updated it recently. They’ll want 18 months of that lovely profit first – and people don’t mind about the speed; it’s the name and the shape.

Also, I bet Schiller will want to introduce at least one of these machines.
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Science Twitter got catfished by a fake professor who ‘died from Covid’ • Gizmodo

Ed Cara:


A bizarre saga of events played out on social media over the weekend, embroiling much of the close-knit world of scientists, academics, and researchers on Twitter. It started with accusations that Arizona State University’s actions had exposed one of their faculty members, an Indigenous woman and anthropologist, to an ultimately fatal case of covid-19. But it ended with allegations that the death was a hoax, carried out by someone who also faked the supposed professor’s entire existence.

Given that many colleges and schools are debating if and how it’s possible to reopen physically this fall in the midst of the pandemic, the accusations of negligence on the part of Arizona State University carry a heavy weight. But many members of the science Twitter community now suspect that the academic who was the first to report the woman’s death, Tennessee-based neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, has pulled off a catfishing scam for years, citing inconsistencies in the woman’s accounts of events in her now-gone tweets.

“Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We have been looking into this since this weekend and cannot verify any connection with the university,” an ASU representative said in an email. If this was indeed a catfishing scheme, the faux death would not only make a mockery of the concerns people have about covid-19, but also the challenges that women of color continue to face in science. 


A fabulous example of people wanting to believe, and ignoring a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. But equally, when you have someone who’s determined to catfish you hard, you need a very suspicious mind to detect it, which most people don’t come with. (Or read the NYTimes version of the story.)
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Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades • Vice

Nafeez Ahmed:


Two theoretical physicists specializing in complex systems conclude that global deforestation due to human activities is on track to trigger the “irreversible collapse” of human civilization within the next two to four decades. 

If we continue destroying and degrading the world’s forests, Earth will no longer be able to sustain a large human population, according to a peer-reviewed paper published this May in Nature Scientific Reports. They say that if the rate of deforestation continues, “all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years.”

“Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down,” they write.  

This trajectory would make the collapse of human civilization take place much earlier due to the escalating impacts of deforestation on the planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival—including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation, water cycle regulation, support for natural and human food systems, and homes for countless species.  


You wanted good news? Sorry.
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Google’s secret home security superpower: your smart speaker with its always-on mics •

Janko Roettgers:


Last week, Reddit user Brazedowl received a curious notification on his phone: Google was telling him that a smoke detector in his home had gone off. Brazedowl, a teacher from North Carolina who goes by Drew in real life, knew about the smoke alarm — he was at home himself and had just fried some sausages in his kitchen. But up until that moment, he had no idea that his smart speaker was able to detect such events. “Google just made my dumb smoke detectors smart,” he wrote on Reddit. “Pretty rad.”

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the feature was accidentally enabled for some users through a recent software update and has since been rolled back. But in light of Monday’s news that Google invested $450 million — acquiring a 6.6% stake — in home security provider ADT, it may be a sign of things to come for Google, as it hints at the company’s secret home security superpower: millions of smart speakers already in people’s homes.

Once the deal closes, ADT’s more than 20,000 installers will also sell Google-made smart displays, security cameras and other hardware, and ADT will more closely integrate Google technology into its own home security offerings. “The goal is to give customers fewer false alarms, more ways to receive alarm events, and better detection of potential incidents inside and around the home,” Google Nest VP and GM Rishi Chandra said in a blog post.

Brazedowl wasn’t the only Google smart speaker user receiving a possible preview of this kind of incident detection in recent days. Other Reddit users reported getting security alerts after breaking glassware, as well as some false alarms triggered by sounds like popped bubble wrap and high-frequency noises that could be confused with a smoke alarm.


Google announced this in May for paying subscribers of its Nest Aware service. But it must be feasible for any Google Home to do this. Always listening, all the time.
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Mergers: proposed acquisition of Fitbit by Google • EU Competition Commissioner

Margrethe Vestager:


Following its first phase investigation, the Commission has concerns about the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages), as well as on the supply of ”ad tech” services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising). By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one.

The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.

…the Commission will also further examine:

• the effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe; and
• whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit.


Could take until December. Again, I wonder how Fitbit stays afloat during this.
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First cruises to set sail post COVID-19 abruptly canceled due to outbreak • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:


At least 36 crew members and five passengers of the Norwegian cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, have tested positive for COVID-19.

Four of the infected crew members have been hospitalized and hundreds of passengers are in quarantine, awaiting test results.

MS Roald Amundsen is run by the Norwegian firm Hurtigruten, which in mid-June became the first cruise ship operator in the world to resume voyages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hurtigruten assured travelers that it followed national public health guidelines and touted safety precautions for passengers on board, including social distancing, increased hygiene and sanitation protocols, and a vow to sail at no more than 50% capacity.

“At Hurtigruten, safety always has been, and always will be, our number one priority,” the company says on a COVID-19 safety page on its website. “With over 127 years of experience, we have established strict procedures for protection against infectious [sic] on board our ships.”

In the wake of the outbreak, the company has suspended all cruises. Norway’s government has also banned cruise ships carrying more than 100 people from disembarking passengers at its ports for 14 days.


I cannot imagine what in the world would tempt anyone to take a cruise at the moment, unless they’re affiliated with Dignitas.
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Coronavirus future in USA will be whack-a-mole: Q&A with epidemiologist • USA Today

USA Today interviewed Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox:


Q: What do you predict is going to happen when schools open in person?

A. I think a lot of schools will be able to open just fine. But the models all say that the single most important factor in the safety of an internal area that you’re trying to make safe — whether it’s a convention or a company or movie production or a theater — is the ambient viral burden. How bad are the incidence and the prevalence and the death rates in hospitals right outside that school? There will be schools that are located in fortunate places that have, at this point, very low incidence. But this virus hopscotches around.

Q. Even if relatively few kids get seriously ill, don’t they spread the disease? 

A. The school season has been, historically, the place that sets off the fall set of respiratory diseases. We talk about it as the spark that begins the American portion of influenza season. Respiratory viruses begin with the kids going to school and sharing viruses and then taking them home. And then a few weeks later, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: Your kids go to kindergarten and two weeks later, you’re getting a cold. So, I think it will help the virus to continue its growth, and it will spread it everywhere around the country that doesn’t already have it.

Q: Are we on the verge of the perfect storm?

A. Well, it can get really bad. If the epidemic isn’t stopped, it’ll just keep going. Right now maybe 10% of (the 330 million) Americans have had the disease. That means you got 300 million more customers for this disease who have not bought it yet.


I’d be surprised if it’s even 10% that have had it. There’s a long way to go. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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