Start Up No.1386: how Senegal beat the US on Covid, Lucent’s fall into darkness, the sci-fi energy gap, Epic demands a lifeline, and more


Unfortunately, some venture capitalists think “tabletop” games like Dungeons & Dragons are ripe for disruption. Or something. CC-licensed photo by hal_99 on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Untested, untraced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

COVID 19: Why Senegal is outpacing the US in tackling pandemic • USA Today

Deirdre Shesgreen:

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COVID-19 test results come back within 24 hours – or even faster. Hotels have been transformed into quarantine units. Scientists are racing to develop a cutting-edge, low-cost ventilator.

This isn’t the pandemic response in South Korea, New Zealand or another country held up as a model of coronavirus containment success.  

It’s Senegal, a west African country with a fragile health care system, a scarcity of hospital beds and about seven doctors for every 100,000 people. And yet Senegal, with a population of 16 million, has tackled COVID-19 aggressively and, so far, effectively. More than six months into the pandemic, the country has about 14,000 cases and 284 deaths.  

“You see Senegal moving out on all fronts: following science, acting quickly, working the communication side of the equation, and then thinking about innovation,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank. 

Senegal deserves “to be in the pantheon of countries that have … responded well to this crisis, even given its low resource base,” Devermont said.

Senegal snagged the No. 2 slot in a recent analysis looking at how 36 countries have handled the pandemic. The United States landed near the bottom: 31st of the 36 countries examined by Foreign Policy magazine, which included a mix of wealthy, middle income and developing nations.

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Learnt the lesson from Ebola, kept those public health measures in place, don’t have culture wars about masks, have a public health system. Basically the polar opposite of the US.
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Who lost Lucent?: The decline of America’s telecom equipment industry • American Affairs Journal

Robert Atkinson:

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in the 1970s the two largest telecom equipment manufacturers were U.S. companies: Western Electric and ITT. Even in the late 1990s, the two largest were still based in North America: Lucent and Nortel (headquartered in Canada but employing tens of thousands of workers in the United States). In 1999, Lucent was almost three times larger than its next two rivals and was the sixth largest company in America in terms of capitalization. Nortel ac counted for over one-third of the capitalization of the Toronto Stock Exchange. By 2008, however, Nortel was bankrupt, and Lucent was a sliver of its former self, having been sold off to Alcatel, a French company, which was later bought by Finland’s Nokia.

What happened? How did America go from the world’s leader to not even an also-ran in the span of just two decades? Equally troub ling, why did no one sound the alarm bell when there was still time for action?

Economists say America lost its telecom equipment industry (firms that make the hardware and software that enable wireline and wireless telecommunications) because it naturally lost comparative advantage as the economy shifted to industries like internet services. Business administration scholars blame bad management. Neither view explains what really happened.

The answer lies in the fact that other nations saw the industry as strate gic and they fought to protect and promote their own companies within this sector. Nowhere is this more true than in China, where, without “innovation mercantilist” policies, Huawei and ZTE (the other major Chinese competitor) would not exist today. Indeed, as Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei himself admitted in 2002, without Beijing’s policy of protecting Chinese companies from aggressive foreign competition at home, “Huawei would no longer exist.” And if Huawei did not exist, Nortel and possibly Lucent would still be with us today.

While other nations were promoting and defending their industry, U.S. policymakers put their abiding faith in free markets.

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Essentially, the whole article is a plaint about the US’s mistake in not subsidising its telecoms companies, and having antitrust laws. Even so, the management culture and the stock market didn’t help.
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Apple: how app developers manipulate your mood to boost ranking • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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Gaming apps will solicit a rating just after you reach a high score. Banking apps will ask when they know it’s payday. Gambling apps will prompt users after they are dealt the perfect Blackjack hand. A sporting app will give the nudge only when a user’s team is winning. 

Apple has for a decade clamped down on “ratings farms” and “download bots” that companies use to fraudulently garner five-star scores and manipulate App Store rankings. And it has had some success. But these are blunt instruments trying to cheat the system in clear violation of Apple’s rules. The more sophisticated techniques stay within the rules but draw on behavioural psychology to understand your mood, emotions and behaviour — they are not hacking the system; they are hacking your brain.

“The algorithms that are used are very hush-hush,” says Saoud Khalifah, chief executive of Fakespot, a service that analyses the authenticity of reviews on the web. “They can target you when you are euphoric, when you have a lot of dopamine . . . They can use machine learning to determine [when] a user will be more inclined to leave positive reviews.”

Conversely, developers know when not to ask: a news app won’t solicit reviews from someone reading a story about death and destruction. The person who keeps getting their password wrong will certainly not be asked. This helps to prevent negative scores from becoming public, raising the overall average. “We call it latent value sensing,” says Michael Sikorsky, chief executive of Robots and Pencils, which helps businesses in the mobile economy. “When you think you’ve got someone into a dark corner of the app, that is not the time to ask for a review.”

Such tactics — hidden from the public but an open secret among developers — have sparked widespread ratings inflation and become so prevalent that “among major enterprises, it’s hard to find ones that don’t do this”, says Brian Levine, vice-president of strategy and analytics at Mobiquity, a consultancy. 

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The digital future of tabletop games • Andreeseen Horowitz

Jonathan Lai and Andrew Chen:

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Today, more than 40 million people play D&D around the world and sales have grown by double-digit percentages for the last five consecutive years. No longer a fringe hobby, D&D features prominently in mainstream and celebrity culture (call it the “Stranger Things” bump).

D&D’s growth is illustrative of a larger trend. Tabletop games—a quintessentially analog experience that encompasses board games, card games, and parlor games—are being dramatically improved by digital tools. While the first attempts at modernizing tabletop games sought to merely replicate games in the digital realm, the next generation of games goes a step further, integrating tools such as live-streaming, user generated content (UGC), audio products, and community platforms. This digital transformation is reinventing the way we learn, play, and connect with one another over tabletop games.

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I liked the comment by Alex Hern, the Guardian’s UK technology editor, about this post (which is pretty long, and meanders off into how you’ll have audio-enhanced tabletop games and boards that can do anything and become anything and you’ll have parts that can be anything, praise the digital gods): “God, it takes a VC writing about an area you know real well to see the hollowness of their thought.” (Hern plays a lot of “tabletop” games, or what we used to call “board games”.)
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What we didn’t get • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:

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Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?

Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.

If you watch Star Trek or Star Wars, or read any of the innumerable space operas of the mid-20th century, they all depend on a bunch of fancy physics. Faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, force fields of various kinds. In 1960, that sort of prediction might have made sense. Humanity had just experienced one of the most amazing sequences of physics advancements ever. In the space of a few short decades, humankind discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, invented the nuclear bomb and nuclear power, and created the x-ray, the laser, superconductors, radar and the space program. The early 20th century was really a physics bonanza, driven in large part by advances in fundamental theory. And in the 1950s and 1960s, those advances still seemed to be going strong, with the development of quantum field theories.

Then it all came to a halt. After the Standard Model was completed in the 1970s, there were no big breakthroughs in fundamental physics. There was a brief period of excitement in the 80s and 90s, when it seemed like string theory was going to unify quantum mechanics and gravity, and propel us into a new era to match the time of Einstein and Bohr and Dirac. But by the 2000s, people were writing pop books about how string theory has failed. Meanwhile, the largest, most expensive particle collider ever built has merely confirmed the theories of the 1970s, leaving little direction for where to go next. Physicists have certainly invented some more cool stuff (quantum teleporation! quantum computers!), but there have been no theoretical breakthroughs that would allow us to cruise from star to star or harness the force of gravity.

The second thing that happened was that we stopped getting better sources of energy.

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From a couple of years ago, but still true, and a good read in its forecast about what we’ll see next.
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Morrison warns Facebook and Google he won’t respond well to any threats over news code • The Guardian

Paul Karp:

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed a mandatory industry code to apply to search engine and social media giants in April after negotiations stalled over issues including the media’s access to data. The overriding sticking point was Google and Facebook’s stonewalling on payment for content, the ACCC told the government.

Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Monday that he supported the Australian competition regulator’s work on the code. “I have had engagement with very senior-level executives,” he said. “I spoke to the CEO of Google just last week, and continue to invite them to participate in that process.

“I remember Amazon said to me once, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay this tax’, when it comes to the low-value threshold, and they threatened to pull Amazon, and they did, and they were back three months later.

“So, look, I think people from these companies understand that when I say something, I mean it. And that I intend to follow through with it.”

In mid-2018 while Morrison was treasurer, Amazon retaliated against changes in the collection of Australia’s goods and services tax on low-value imported items by directing Australians to amazon.com.au and barring them from purchasing items from its US store. It backed down in November 2018.

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Over the falls we gooooooooo!
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Epic Games is getting desperate in its failed ‘Fortnite’ battle with Apple • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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Epic Games recently filed for a preliminary injunction that would force Apple to keep Fortnite in the App Store. In its filing, Epic argues that keeping the game out of the App Store while the case goes through the legal system would cause the company “irreparable harm.” Of course, the irony of Epic claiming that it’s not looking for special treatment while at the same time demanding that Apple give it a benefit no other developer gets is rich, to say the least.

As part of its filing, Epic details some of the harm it’s suffered already:

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Fortnite is more than just a game. It is an intensely social community whose value to its users depends in large part on the ability to connect with other users. Epic has built a community that people rely on. By removing Fortnite from the App Store, Apple has cleaved millions of users from their friends and family in the Fortnite community, which entirely depends on connectivity. The user outcry has been deafening, showing real harm to the public interest.

Daily active users on iOS have declined by over 60% since Fortnite’s removal from the App Store. And removal already has resulted in a loss of goodwill and irreparable damage to Epic’s reputation. The continued loss of Fortnite as a gathering place for users on all platforms will lead Epic’s customers to defect. Epic may never see these users again. It will also be denied the opportunity to access even a single new user among the one-billion-plus iOS users for at least the next year.

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That 60% figure is dramatic, but are those lost users not logging in on any other platform either? Epic doesn’t say. Other data in the filing: 116m of Fortnite’s registered users, or nearly one-third of the 350m total, play on iOS at some time. Also, 63% of those 116m (that’s 73m) play only on iOS. The numbers are hard to parse, but clearly some iOS users have just logged off entirely.

As to Epic’s woe-is-me – as the judge in the first TRO pointed out, it’s their own fault. And where’s their TRO against Google, precisely?
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TikTok estimated to generate $88.1m in revenue in August • Tech In Asia

Doris Yu:

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It’s estimated that the Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok generated more than US$88.1m in revenue last month, 6.3x higher than its earnings for the same period last year, Caixin reported, citing statistics from SensorTower.

It attributed the year-on-year growth to the strong performance of TikTok’s Chinese version, Douyin, which accounted for about 85% of the app’s August revenue. Meanwhile, the US market, being its second-largest revenue source, took up 7.8%.

The app’s August revenue, however, represented a decline when compared with the months of July, June, and May, with US$102.5m, US$90.7m, and US$95.7m, respectively.

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OK, so that’s about a billion dollars over the course of the year, which is respectable. But that must pale into insignificance compared to its costs. Growth first, profits later; no wonder Facebook is terrified.
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Brexit: the reason why Boris Johnson is jeopardising an EU free trade deal • ITV News

Robert Peston:

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if the government of Boris Johnson has an ideology, it is that of Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave crew. And Cummings’s passionate conviction is that Johnson’s government MUST have the discretion to invest without fetter in hi-tech, digital, artificial intelligence and the full gamut of the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

How so? Well here is the Cummings/Vote Leave fundamental article of faith for this era: “Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.”

The whole point of being in government for Cummings – and he would say for his Vote Leave team who work with him in Downing Street – is “to try to change what happens on these questions”, I am told.

This is a remarkable and important statement.

It won’t escape you, if you did an O level or GCSE in history, that the UK was one of those few nations early to the first industrial revolution, which then did indeed own and coerce those that were late.

But more importantly, it says that Cummings – and we have to assume his boss Johnson too – are obsessed about not being bossed around by the two superpowers that already have trillion dollar tech companies, namely the US and China (and James Forsyth in The Times elaborated on all this in his column on Friday).

To be honest, it is moot whether there is any chance for the UK to catch up in this latest industrial revolution with China and America, even if every penny of taxpayers’ money was devoted to backing tech innovation. But it certainly matters that this government feels it is an imperative not to be fatalistic and to have a go.

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So let’s consider this. There are currently four trillion-dollar companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft. Apple and Microsoft took more than 30 years to reach this level, Google and Amazon more than 20. There are zero trillion dollar companies in Europe; zero that are halfway there (SAP is the largest, worth $190bn; most people have no idea what it does). The UK will not have a trillion-dollar-value company in 20 years. If it blocks external acquisitions (such as DeepMind and ARM.. perhaps not Accenture?), it might have a tech sector with that value in that time.
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Are radioactive diamond batteries a cure for nuclear waste? • WIRED

Daniel Oberhaus:

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In the summer of 2018, a hobby drone dropped a small package near the lip of Stromboli, a volcano off the coast of Sicily that has been erupting almost constantly for the past century. As one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, Stromboli is a source of fascination for geologists, but collecting data near the roiling vent is fraught with peril. So a team of researchers from the University of Bristol built a robot volcanologist and used a drone to ferry it to the top of the volcano, where it could passively monitor its every quake and quiver until it was inevitably destroyed by an eruption. The robot was a softball-sized sensor pod powered by microdoses of nuclear energy from a radioactive battery the size of a square of chocolate. The researchers called their creation a “dragon egg”.

Dragon eggs can help scientists study violent natural processes in unprecedented detail, but for Tom Scott, a materials scientist at Bristol, volcanoes were just the beginning. For the past few years, Scott and a small group of collaborators have been developing a souped-up version of the dragon egg’s nuclear battery that can last for thousands of years without ever being charged or replaced. Unlike the batteries in most modern electronics, which generate electricity from chemical reactions, the Bristol battery collects particles spit out by radioactive diamonds that can be made from reformed nuclear waste.

Earlier this month, Scott and his collaborator, a chemist at Bristol named Neil Fox, created a company called Arkenlight to commercialise their nuclear diamond battery.

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Now this seems the sort of thing that would make far more sense to invest in – but is the government the right body to do the investing? We want governments to build roads, not cars, traintracks not trains.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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