Start Up No.1379: Apple under news pressure on App Store fees, Adobe zaps Lightroom photos (oops), ML Roman emperors, and more

Las Vegas: a great place to go to catch Covid-19 (but how dangerous is it by age range, exactly?) CC-licensed photo by Mathieu Lebreton on Flickr.

Please note: The Overspill will be on a completely undeserved rest next week, planning to return on Sept August 31st.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. On a break! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

App stores, trust and anti-trust • Benedict Evans

On the topic of Epic:


Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it. A secure system with a switch to turn off the security might work for Linux and a highly technical user, but when you’ve given smartphones to a few billion people, a secure system with a switch to turn off the security is just a target for malware. That horoscope app can tell you’ll get more accurate results if it has access to some computer gibberish, so please press OK, and guess what? Everyone will press OK. A computer should not ask a question that the user won’t understand, and when you have billions of users that list looks different. This has been Google’s experience with Android: it chose a less restrictive sandbox than iOS and had many more malware problems, and Google has spent the last decade slowly rowing towards Apple’s approach.

…I think Apple is going to have to make fundamental changes to the payment model. Epic only has margin at stake, but Spotify can’t pay at all, it’s a direct competitor, and there’s no user benefit at all to Apple’s policy, just confusion and annoyance. The EU is now pursuing two separate competition policy cases against Apple: one over the App Store, with Spotify a complainant, and the other over Apple Wallet and Apple Pay. This second one is instructive: the EU is taking the view that Apple has a monopoly of payment on the iPhone. Market definition is everything. I-am-not-a-lawyer, but I don’t see how Apple can win on Spotify (or Kindle), and I don’t think it should.

That might mean changes in who and what is covered by payment rules, but it probably also means changes to the 30%. There’s a lot of argument about principle, but there’s also a price: if the rate was, say, 10%, I’m not sure that we would be having the same conversation, and Epic would certainly get less sympathy.

That 30% adds up to real money, incidentally. When the store launched, Steve Jobs said it was aiming to break even – the 30% was to cover the running costs, and it is worth remembering how many huge companies are getting the App Store, the manual review and the file downloads to hundreds of millions of users for nothing more than their $100 a year developer subscription. But the App Store is not running at break even anymore: in 2019 it made somewhere between $10bn and $15bn of commission – 20-30% of the ‘service revenue’ Apple likes to talk about.


Well I’m sure it will all get sorted out very amicably in the week while I’m away.
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iPhones with ‘Fortnite’ are being resold for thousands • Business Insider

Ben Gilbert:


If you were one of the millions of people who downloaded “Fortnite” before it was pulled from Apple’s App Store last week, then you’ve still got it — Apple can’t remove the game from your iPhone. But if you didn’t, perhaps you’d be willing to pay as much as $10,000 for an iPhone with the game preinstalled.

That’s what resellers on eBay are hoping.

A search of eBay’s US store on Wednesday with the term “iphone fortnite installed” yielded over 100 listings of resellers with various iPhone models. A search for “fortnite iphone” turns up even more.

The $10,000 option above, for instance, comes with the game preinstalled on 2017’s iPhone X.

Notably, “Fortnite” is a free-to-play game that’s available on nearly every gaming platform. Moreover, the game can be played across competing game platforms — whether you’re playing on Nintendo Switch, iPhone, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Android, or Mac, you can play with other “Fortnite” players.


The headline is wrong: iPhones with Fortnite are being *offered* for resale for thousands. Gilbert didn’t find a single completed sale for anywhere like that price, and the story notes that most of the phones on offer haven’t attracted a single bid.

Though if you were Epic, it might make sense to try to amp up the media-perceived value of your product by offering a couple of old phones at absurd prices. I’m not suggesting Epic is doing that, but this certainly doesn’t hurt them at all.
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News publishers join fight against Apple over App Store terms • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:


Major news organizations are joining the growing chorus of companies pushing for more favorable terms on Apple’s App Store, a crucial link to new digital customers.

In a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook on Thursday, a trade body representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publishers said the outlets want to know what it would take for them to get better deal terms—which would allow them to keep more money from digital subscriptions sold through Apple’s app store.

App developers, including news publishers, pay Apple 30% of the revenue from first-time subscriptions made through iOS apps; that commission is reduced to 15% after the subscriber’s first year. Apple says the revenue split is similar to other app marketplaces and allows the company to cover the app store’s operating expenses.

“The terms of Apple’s unique marketplace greatly impact the ability to continue to invest in high-quality, trusted news and entertainment particularly in competition with other larger firms,” said the letter, which is signed by Jason Kint, chief executive of the trade body, Digital Content Next.


The letter basically says “how do we get Amazon’s deal that it gets on Amazon Prime Video?” After all, news apps are “reader” apps. This is going to be neverending for Apple.
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Adobe accidentally deleted people’s photos in latest Lightroom update • The Verge

Monica Chin:


For the past two days, photographers have been posting in a panic across Twitter, Reddit, and the Photoshop feedback forums. They’d downloaded Adobe’s latest update for Lightroom’s iOS app, and suddenly, their photos and presets were gone. Adobe has now confirmed the issue, and it’s also said that the data are gone for good.

“I’ve talked with customer service for 4+ hours over the past 2 days and just a minute ago they told me that the issue has no fix and that these lost photos are unrecoverable,” complained one Reddit user who says they’ve lost over two years’ worth of photo edits. The complaints were spotted by PetaPixel.

“This is literally the worst,” tweeted another customer, who said they lost not only 800 pictures but hundreds of dollars worth of paid presets.

Adobe representative Rikk Flohr acknowledged and apologized for the snafu in a forum post yesterday. Flohr did not address the scope of the problem, though he stated that the issue only impacted assets that were not synced to the Lightroom cloud.


But they can’t be recovered. That’s it. They’re gone. A great way to get users to stick with Lightroom and keep paying that subscription. Oh yeah. See also: Canon’s cloud platform has lost users’ files and can’t restore them. So in one case you’re only safe if you upload, in the other you’re only safe if you don’t.
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Cellphone data shows how Las Vegas is “gambling with lives” across the country • ProPublica

Marshall Allen:


A new analysis of smartphone data, conducted at ProPublica’s request, shows how interconnected the country is with visitors to Las Vegas — which heightens concerns about the limitations of interstate contact tracing. The companies X-Mode and Tectonix analyzed travel to and from Las Vegas during four days, a Friday to Monday, in mid-July. In compliance with privacy laws, X-Mode collects data from smartphone users, mainly those using fitness and weather apps that track their location. The data represents about 5% of the smartphone users in the United States. Tectonix analyzed the data and visualized it on a map.

During the four-day period, about 26,000 devices were identified on the Las Vegas Strip. Some of those same smartphones also showed up in every state on the mainland except Maine in those same four days. About 3,700 of the devices were spotted in Southern California in the same four days; about 2,700 in Arizona, with 740 in Phoenix; around 1,000 in Texas; more than 800 in Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland; and more than 100 in the New York area.

The cellphone analysis highlights a reason the virus keeps spreading, said Oscar Alleyne, an epidemiologist and chief program officer with the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “People have been highly mobile, and as a result, it makes sense why we see the continuation of the surge.”


“Highly mobile”. Righty-ho.
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Why the Facebookening of Oculus VR is bad for users, devs, competition • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:


This is how an Oculus ID works. Without spending a penny or confirming your real-life name, you can make a username, build a friends list, and acquire free-to-play software licenses. If you want to buy software or add-ons, you can either add a credit card or claim a prepaid voucher code. And if you violate any ToS, either within an official Oculus app or in a third-party ecosystem, punitive actions can be taken on both your username and your VR headset’s unique ID. They don’t need your name or life history to do that.

But Facebook’s real-name policy differs largely from the Oculus ID system:


Facebook is a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life. This makes it so that you always know who you’re connecting with. The name on your profile should be the name that your friends call you in everyday life. This name should also appear on an ID or document from our ID list.


We’ve already seen how this policy can result in everything from headaches to security concerns. Victims of harassment and abuse are but one community with a vested interest in establishing alternate online identities. The same goes for members of the LGBTQ community. Weirdly enough, 2014 protests over the real-name policy included pledges from Facebook to expand and clarify its real-name rules for the sake of inclusion and user protection, but the above 2020 language doesn’t reflect such strides in the slightest.

Less-vulnerable users may simply not want their VR activities (gaming, apps, social spaces) attached to a “real-name” Facebook account for a number of reasons. Or they may vote with software by electing to use a third-party app’s account system—especially one that works across other VR ecosystems. Users may have established an identity in the online game Rec Room on an Oculus headset in order to play games and socialize with people on PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, or other headsets. Enforcing a Facebook requirement on top of that will send ripples through established VR communities.

And what happens if Facebook’s history of user manipulation comes to VR? Emotional manipulation within VR operates on greater extremes than on a flat screen, if the horror-gaming genre is any indication, so what kind of “A/B testing” might Facebook-connected Oculus users expect? And what if your actions within VR become attached to your real-life identity for Facebook’s “shadow profile” purposes?


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Uber and Lyft shutdown in California averted as judge grants emergency stay • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:


A California appeals court judge blocked an order requiring Uber and Lyft to classify drivers as employees, averting an expected shutdown of the ride-sharing services in California at midnight tonight. The court granted Uber and Lyft a temporary stay while their appeals process play out.

Lyft had already announced it was planning to temporarily cease operations in the state earlier today, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi had said the same about his company in an interview yesterday.

But the companies won an 11th hour reprieve from the California Court of Appeals hours before the shutdown was expected to go into effect. Uber and Lyft will now have until October to convince the court to throw out the order that it employ its drivers. If they are unsuccessful, the companies will be back where they started, and may again decide to shutdown.

Uber and Lyft are under enormous pressure to fundamentally alter their business models in California, the state where both companies were founded and raised billions of dollars in venture capital. Uber and Lyft say drivers prefer the flexibility of working as freelancers, while labor unions and elected officials contend this deprives them of traditional benefits like health insurance and workers’ compensation.


Hard to think anyone wouldn’t want to get the benefits (in the US particularly) of health insurance and compensation. “Oh no I’d much rather sort those things out myself,” said no freelancer ever.
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Americans misperceive the risks of death from coronavirus, research shows • TheHill

Joseph Guzman:


A joint Franklin Templeton-Gallup research project released late last month found that on average, Americans believed people aged 55 and older made up more than half, 57.7%, of total coronavirus deaths. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 22, those 55 and older made up more than 92% of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. 

Researchers also found that Americans believed people aged 44 and younger made up about 30% of total coronavirus deaths, when the actual figure was less than 3%. 

Americans also thought those aged 65 or older accounted for about 40% of COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure was 80%. 


That’s a pretty substantial clearout at the older end, given there have been more than 170,000 deaths in the US. I certainly would have been among the wrong group in making an estimate.
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Turning stock charts into landscape art • Kottke

Jason Kottke:


Inspired by the charts on Robinhood and Yahoo Finance, Gladys Estolas is turning the charts of notable stocks into landscape artworks, inserting references to the company into the art. The Ford chart at the top has a truck, the Tesla chart features a rocket (a reference to SpaceX), and the Disney one includes the twin suns of Tatooine & a Jawa Sandcrawler.


I recall one a long way back which represented the stock market, and the stocks therein, into fish swimming around a central point. Didn’t mean a lot but sure was pretty.
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Photoreal Roman Emperor project. 54 machine-learning assisted portraits • Medium

Daniel Voshart:


The main technology behind Artbreeder is it’s generative adversarial network (GAN). Some call it Artificial Intelligence but it is more accurately described as Machine Learning.

Artistic interpretations are, by their nature, more art than science but I’ve made an effort to cross-reference their appearance (hair, eyes, ethnicity etc.) to historical texts and coinage. I’ve striven to age them according to the year of death — their appearance prior to any major illness.
My goal was not to romanticize emperors or make them seem heroic. In choosing bust / sculptures, my approach was to favor the bust that was made when the emperor was alive. Otherwise, I favored the bust made with the greatest craftsmanship and where the emperor was stereotypically uglier — my pet theory being that artists were likely trying to flatter their subjects.

Some emperors (latter dynasties, short reigns) did not have surviving busts. For this, I researched multiple coin depictions, family tree and birthplaces. Sometimes I created my own composites.


Useful to be reminded that they were real people after all.
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The ‘We Build The Wall’ huckster is accused of duping donors. Turns out, he planned to sell their data too • Daily Beast

Lachlan Markay:


[Brian] Kolfage [who set up the ‘We Build The Wall’ scam, which allegedly skimmed in Steve Bannon – indicted for same on Thursday] bragged that the voter contact list in his possession was likely the third biggest in Republican politics, surpassed only by those controlled by Trump himself and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). He said it contained names, email addresses, phone numbers, and other data points about donors to his nonprofit who Republican candidates could hit up for cash.

Kolfage proposed a revenue-sharing agreement, whereby he would keep 50% of all the funds raised by the campaigns and groups that used his list.

Kolfage’s pitch to the Republican consultant, who does digital fundraising for Republican candidates, suggests that Kolfage was seeking to rent the list to other vendors that work with political campaigns, rather than to the campaigns directly. That’s a common arrangement for digital fundraising vendors, but it makes it difficult to track down which, or how many, campaigns have rented the We Build The Wall list.

But at least one political candidate appears to have done so. The Daily Beast reported last year that Kris Kobac—the former Kansas Secretary of State, and We Build The Wall general counsel—sent a fundraising email to that list asking for donations to his ultimately failed 2020 Senate campaign. Legal experts told The Daily Beast at the time that that solicitation almost certainly violated federal campaign finance laws, either by failing to disclose that the campaign had paid for its use of the list, or by constituting an illegal in-kind contribution from the nonprofit to the campaign.


There’s probably no bigger mistake you can make in your life than to provide an email address along with a donation to someone in American politics. You’ll never hear the end of it.
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Protect your devices from web-transmitted infections (WTIs).

Picked up some random URL IRL?

Stay safe. Put it in the box, then press the button.


Another one for the bookmarks: effectively, a firewall (or very thick radiation-proof glass) that lets you view the site with tongs. Try it on a site you use already, such as a news site, to get an idea of how it functions.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: earlier attempts to take a five-week holiday have been thwarted by attentive readers.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1379: Apple under news pressure on App Store fees, Adobe zaps Lightroom photos (oops), ML Roman emperors, and more

  1. I’ve actually been wondering if we’re doing a disservice focused so much on dying from Covid19 and not enough on those who are still suffering severe effects weeks or months later? As that’s roughly 10% of all cases. (see Ed Young’s latest piece in the Atlantic). i.e. If I think my risk of dying is 3% but my risk of being disabled is 10%, I might change my risk calculation when being out in public?

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