Start Up No.1451: the trouble with Slack and work, Apple works on replacing Qualcomm modems, Pornhub’s giant purge, and more


British police have a new speed camera that can measure speeds up to a mile away. CC-licensed photo by Nige Harris on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. So they are. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Slack is the right tool for the wrong way to work • The New Yorker

Cal Newport:

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In 2016, I interviewed an entrepreneur named Sean who had co-founded a small technology startup based in London. As with many organizations at that time, Sean and his team relied on e-mail as their primary collaboration tool. “We used to have our Gmail constantly opened,” he said. Then they heard about a slick new instant-messenger service named Slack that promised to streamline office communication: “There was this hype, so we decided to try it.” Once the team switched to the tool, the rate of back-and-forth messaging intensified, eventually reaching a stressful peak when a demanding client insisted on the ability to directly communicate with Sean’s employees using Slack. The team soon burned out, and two engineers quit. In desperation, Sean moved the company off Slack. When I spoke with him, some time had passed since this incident, but the memory of the service’s omnipresent notification ping remained strong. “I hear that sound, it gives me the shivers,” he said.

I thought about Sean when I heard about Salesforce’s proposed acquisition of Slack for close to $28bn.

…The shift toward remote work during the pandemic only reinforces the company’s value to the marketplace. But a lot of us share Sean’s fatigue with Slack. Writing in The New Republic, Timothy Noah laments that the platform transformed the American workplace into a “dystopian micro-Twitterverse,” while the technology journalist Casey Newton tweeted, “Salesforce is paying $28 billion for an app that people shut down when they need to get things done.” Slack is both absolutely necessary and absolutely aggravating; we rely on it, but we also can’t stand it. To dismiss this confused reaction as the usual grumbling about new forms of communication, however, would be a mistake. A closer look at Slack reveals an underlying dynamic with potential economic ramifications that make $28bn seem paltry.

«

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Apple is full-steam ahead on replacing Qualcomm modems with its own • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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As rumoured many months ago, Apple’s silicon ambitions don’t end with replacing Intel CPUs with its own in Macs—it plans to ditch Qualcomm modems in favor of its own custom-designed chips for iPhones, according to Apple hardware tech lead Johny Srouji.

Srouji confirmed the company’s plans when speaking to employees during an internal town hall meeting, as reported by Bloomberg today. Apple acquired Intel’s 5G smartphone modem business last summer. That acquisition of Intel’s intellectual property and resources was key for Apple’s new efforts.

Quoted in the Bloomberg story, Srouji told Apple employees: “This year, we kicked off the development of our first internal cellular modem which will enable another key strategic transition… Long-term strategic investments like these are a critical part of enabling our products and making sure we have a rich pipeline of innovative technologies for our future.”

Apple introduced 5G modems for the first time this year in its iPhone 12 lineup, but the phones use modems made by Qualcomm. When Apple completes its work on its own modems, it is likely to drop the Qualcomm modems from most or all of its phones. Qualcomm shares fell in value after the Bloomberg report ran.

However, the report notes that “a 2019 patent agreement between Apple and Qualcomm includes a six-year licensing pact,” and that “Qualcomm charges license fees to phone makers based on wireless patents it owns, regardless of whether they use its chips or not.”

«

You could take two views on how Apple’s DIY modems will go: they’ll be terrible – the butterfly keyboards of modems – or they’ll soar above everything that’s gone before, the M1 chip of modems. Given that the interaction between the modem and the phone OS is important to elements like battery life, reception and so on, it really could go either way.

I wonder too if the arrival of an Apple 5G modem will also mean its arrival on Macs, or if modems will continue to be reserved for iPhones and iPads.
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New police speed camera can catch drivers from 750 metres away • Auto Express

Tristan Shale-Hester:

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Police forces in the UK are being equipped with a new type of speed gun that can read a vehicle’s number plate from up to 750 metres away.

Constabularies across the country have confirmed trials of the TruCam II Speed Enforcement Laser, each of which costs around £10,000. The devices work both in the daytime and in the dark thanks to a new night-mode feature.

The TruCam can automatically focus on a car approaching from half a mile away, with vehicle data uploaded to a database, after which a penalty charge notice is sent to the registered keeper. This means police don’t need to pursue and pull over speeding drivers.

Using an integrated laser, the TruCam measures the time and distance between vehicles. It contains a digital camera that can collect and store HD video evidence of a speeding offence. The device itself is actually capable of reading number plates from up to 1.5km away, but UK police are calibrating theirs to 750 metres, in line with tolerances set by the UK Government. 

«

For American readers, 750 metres is just shy of half a mile. (0.47 miles to be precise.) I wonder where police would want to do this at night that isn’t a motorway, where average speed cameras (which average your speed over a long distance, typically miles) are common. Apparently the police did catch someone, horrors, doing 35mph in a 30mph zone. (Of course the UK still uses imperial measurements when it comes to distance except when talking about speed guns. Go figure.)
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What comes after smartphones? • Benedict Evans

Evans has some thoughts:

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As well as looking at the sequence ‘mainframe – PC – web – smartphone’, we should probably also think about what was going on underneath: ‘database – client/server – open source – cloud’, perhaps. That is, there are other progressions that are less visible but just as important. On that model, the fundamental trends of today are clearly machine learning and, perhaps, crypto. It’s very obvious that we are remaking the tech industry around machine learning, and probably a lot of other industries as well, and while there is a clear reason why there might not be anything after smartphones any time soon, I don’t think anyone would argue there won’t be anything after machine learning – there is a continuous process of innovation and creation (and, indeed, a pendulum, from server to local and back again). Meanwhile, if you come from Silicon Valley then things like cloud and SaaS seem like old and boring topics, but only around a quarter of large enterprise workflows have moved to the cloud at all so far – the rest are still ‘on-prem’ in old systems and indeed in mainframes. There is a huge amount of work and company creation to moving (a lot of) the rest in the next decade or two (this, really, is what I think ‘digital transformation’ means). 

There’s one more model to think about, though.

«

The answer is not “augmented reality glasses”, however.
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Pornhub just purged all unverified content from the platform • Vice

Samantha Cole:

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Pornhub is removing all videos on its site that weren’t uploaded by official content partners or members of its model program, a fundamental shift in the way one of the largest porn sites in the world operates. This means a significant portion of its videos will disappear. 

“As part of our policy to ban unverified uploaders, we have now also suspended all previously uploaded content that was not created by content partners or members of the Model Program,” according to Pornhub’s announcement. “This means every piece of Pornhub content is from verified uploaders, a requirement that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter have yet to institute.”

Pornhub said the videos will be removed pending verification and review, and the verification process will begin in the new year. Prior to this change, anyone could create an account on Pornhub and upload any video they wanted to, since the platform’s launch in 2007.

…Before the content purge on Sunday evening, Pornhub hosted around 13.5 million videos according to the number displayed on the site’s search bar, a large number of them from unverified accounts. On Monday morning as of 9 a.m., that search bar is showing only 4.7 million videos, meaning Pornhub removed most of the videos on its site, including the most-viewed non-verified amateur video, which had more than 29 million views. That number briefly went back up to 7.2 million, so at the moment it’s unclear how many videos will be removed.

…A lot of unverified videos on Pornhub aren’t even porn. People uploaded pirated full-length movies to Pornhub, as well as memes and jokes. Last year, users uploaded more than 6.83 million new videos to Pornhub, according to the platform’s 2019 year in review.

«

Though Tumblr did put a ton of content behind an “adult” label in December 2018, I can’t think of another example of a platform removing so much content at a stroke.
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What engineers can learn from Apple’s M1 Macbook marketing campaign • Quixoticnomad

Ayush Kumar:

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As far as I can remember, I’ve always had a disdain towards Apple products. Something about buying a laptop with poor thermals, a restrictive operating system, and a $1400 price tag just didn’t sit right with me. I was more content using my beat-up Thinkpad with Linux installed.

But 2020 has been an interesting year. So it would be fitting that 2020 would be the first year that I would venture out to buy a new laptop and somehow settle on choosing the new M1 Macbook Air. After using it for the past few weeks, I could not be happier. However, this got me thinking. How did Apple convince me (a staunch critic of Apple products) to buy a Mac?

After retracing my steps, I realized it was primarily due to their copywriting. As an engineer, I’ve only recently started to realize how important copywriting is when selling anything. Apple’s recent campaign around the new M1 Macs has been nothing short of spectacular and as engineers, I feel like there 2 key takeaways we all can learn from them.

«

Reading this, you realise that there really are people who haven’t heard this all rehearsed each time Apple introduces a new product. Of course the iPhone was nearly 14 years ago (yes!), and even the iPad is more than ten years distant. And the M1, in its way, is subtly different: the same package but new internals. That’s actually tough to advertise.
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Google is getting left behind due to horrible UI/UX • Daniel Miessler

Meissler is, to say the least, frustrated by the madness of interfaces such as Gmail (with which I agree, whenever I have to use its web interface):

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My question is simple: how the hell is this possible?

I get it 10 years ago. But then they came out with the new design language. Materialize, or whatever it was. Cool story, and cool visuals.

But it’s not about the graphics, it’s about the experience.

How can you be sitting on billions of dollars and be unable to hire product managers that can create usable interfaces?
How can you run Gmail on an interface that’s tangibly worse than anything else out there?
How can you let Google Docs get completely obsoleted by startups?
I’ve heard people say that Google has become the new Microsoft, or the new Oracle, but damn—at least Microsoft is innovating. At least Oracle has a sailing team, or whatever else they do.

I’m being emotional at this point.

Google, you are made out of money. Fix your fucking interfaces.

Focus on the experience. Focus on simplicity. And use navigation language that’s similar across your various properties, so that I’ll know what to do whether I’m managing my Apps account, or my domains, or my Analytics.

You guys are awesome at so many things. Make the commitment to fix how we interact with them.

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Cardio fitness notifications are available today on Apple Watch • Apple

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With iOS 14.3 and watchOS 7.2, Apple Watch users can view their cardio fitness level in the Health app on iPhone, and receive a notification on Apple Watch if it falls within the low range. Breakthrough technology released in watchOS 7 allows Apple Watch to easily measure low cardio fitness, and today cardio fitness notifications empower users to be more active for dramatic long-term health benefits.

Cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by VO2 max, is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise, and it can be increased through physical activity. Apple Watch already estimates average and higher levels of VO2 max during vigorous outdoor walks, runs, or hikes, which many runners and other athletes monitor to improve performance.

Now, with watchOS 7, Apple Watch uses multiple sensors, including the optical heart sensor, GPS, and the accelerometer, to estimate lower levels, too.

«

iOS 14.3 was released on Monday. The “low” level is really pretty low, but having the measurement available on the watch rather than in the Health app on the phone might make people more likely to take note of it.
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FTC issues orders to nine social media and video streaming services seeking data about how they collect, use, and present information • Federal Trade Commission

»

The Federal Trade Commission is issuing orders to nine social media and video streaming companies, requiring them to provide data on how they collect, use, and present personal information, their advertising and user engagement practices, and how their practices affect children and teens.

The FTC is issuing the orders  under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act, which authorizes the Commission to conduct wide-ranging studies that do not have a specific law enforcement purpose. The orders are being sent to Amazon.com, Inc., ByteDance Ltd., which operates the short video service TikTok, Discord Inc., Facebook, Inc., Reddit, Inc., Snap Inc., Twitter, Inc., WhatsApp Inc., and YouTube LLC. The companies will have 45 days from the date they received the order to respond.

The FTC is seeking information specifically related to:

• how social media and video streaming services collect, use, track, estimate, or derive personal and demographic information;
• how they determine which ads and other content are shown to consumers;
• whether they apply algorithms or data analytics to personal information;
• how they measure, promote, and research user engagement; and
• how their practices affect children and teens.

«

This isn’t a Section 230 thing that has got right-wing Americans bent out of shape, but seems particularly to be looking at the “children and teens” element. Though of course it’s hard to be sure until the result of the investigation becomes clearer.
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Exposure Notifications: end of year update • Google

Steph Hannon is senior director of product management, which includes the Exposure Notification system developed with Apple:

»

By simply downloading your regional app, you can help public health authorities in their efforts to control COVID-19. There’s plenty of evidence that people are doing this: 40% of the population in the UK and 17% of the population in Uruguay have downloaded the app. In the United States, 20% of Colorado and 53% of Washington D.C. have enabled EN. There are other anecdotal signs that the system is helping: In September, the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, received an exposure notification, and in November, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, had been infected and used Exposure Notifications to alert staff members who may have been exposed.

Research has revealed that exposure notifications can “save lives at all levels of uptake” and showed that a staff dedicated to working on contact tracing combined with 15% of the population using exposure notifications could reduce infections by 15% and deaths by 11%. In Ireland, early reports from their app indicated there were hundreds of EN notifications from people who had uploaded positive test results. A recent pilot in Spain showed that it could detect almost twice as many potential infections than manual contact tracing. 

«

UK not mentioned despite the big uptake of notifications. Possibly because the UK’s Test and Trace system has been so terrible?
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Opinion: airborne transmission, not surfaces, is the bigger Covid-19 problem • The Washington Post

Joseph G. Allen, Charles Haas and Linsey C. Marr:

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We don’t have a single documented case of covid-19 transmission from surfaces. Not one.

So why, then, are we spending a small fortune to deep clean our offices, schools, subways and buses?
Business leaders, school districts and government officials often ask us whether people are over-cleaning in response to the pandemic. The short answer is yes. The reality is that the novel coronavirus spreads mainly through the air. Especially with regular hand-washing, there’s no need to constantly disinfect surfaces.

The best analogy we’ve used for how this virus is spread is to think about a smoker. If you’re near a smoker outside, you may not notice the smell, especially if you’re not standing too close. But if you’re indoors, you could definitely detect it, even if you’re across the room, depending on how far away you are and how well-ventilated or filtered the air is.

How much could you protect yourself from that smoke by scrubbing down countertops, doorknobs and all the other surfaces in the room? Not much. Shared air is the problem, not shared surfaces.

Transmission of a disease through “fomites” — the name given to any inanimate surface that can be contaminated with a virus — is certainly possible. Many viruses, such as rhinovirus and norovirus, are transmitted through contaminated surfaces. But that’s just not really the case for covid-19.

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Allen, Haas and Marr are professors of various forms of civil engineering. New Zealand might claim that it has identified a rubbish bin and a lift button as sources of infection, but I’m very dubious about the lift button; far more likely it was aerosol inside the lift. The rubbish bin remains an open question.
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Russian hack’s sophistication impresses even the experts • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima:

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The far-reaching Russian hack that sent U.S. government and corporate officials scrambling in recent days appears to have been a quietly sophisticated bit of online spying. Investigators at cybersecurity firm FireEye, which itself was victimized in the operation, marveled that the meticulous tactics involved “some of the best operational security” its investigators had ever seen, using at least one piece of malicious software never previously detected.

“This is classic espionage,” said Thomas Rid, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who specializes in cybersecurity issues. “It’s done in a highly sophisticated way… But this is a stealthy operation.”

The impact may ultimately prove to be profound. SolarWinds, the maker of widely used network-management software that the Russians manipulated to enable their intrusions, reported in a federal filing Monday that “fewer than 18,000” of its customers may have been impacted. That’s a small slice of the company’s more than 300,000 customers worldwide, including the Pentagon and the White House, but still represents a large number of important networks worldwide. (Russia has denied any role in the attacks.)

…The hackers used multi-step techniques that apparently started with the hack of somebody at SolarWinds. That allowed the Russians to manipulate software updates for systems reliant on the company’s Orion software, a popular monitoring tool that creates profound access across a computer network.

Software patches, which carry digital signatures verifying their authenticity, are an ideal target for hackers but controversial because they can undermine faith in the updating process itself — a key to good cybersecurity hygiene for computers and systems worldwide.

The altered patches — which FireEye’s blog said turned them into “trojans,” a term derived from the Trojan horse that the Greeks used to trick unsuspecting residents of Troy into bringing into their fortified city, allowing it to be sacked — were delivered to Orion customers between March and May.

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Every security company’s nightmare: you send out a patch that’s actually got malware in it. Kim Zetter, who wrote a good book about Stuxnet, had a thread about this too.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Not exactly errata or corrigenda, but I have had feedback from more than one person that removing Chrome (and Keystone) from their Mac led it to speed up. It may be something to do with an interaction with the newer operating systems; the jury’s still out on exactly what’s going on.

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1451: the trouble with Slack and work, Apple works on replacing Qualcomm modems, Pornhub’s giant purge, and more

  1. In regards to Google keystone… I had long ago removed Chrome from my 2015 MacBook Pro running Mohave. After reading the information about Keystone, I searched for and found Keystone running in the background. I removed it and found my laptop seems much snappier especially Safari. No benchmarks to prove it, but the difference is palpable. Much appreciated.

  2. “Apparently the police did catch someone, horrors, doing 35mph in a 30mph zone”

    These are exactly the drivers the police should be targeting. The difference between – say – 75 and 80 on the motorway probably doesn’t matter much, but 5mph is important in the streets where people live:

    “If you hit a pedestrian:

    at 40 mph there is a 90 percent chance they will be killed.
    at 35 mph there is a 50 percent chance they will be killed.
    at 30 mph there is a 20 percent chance they will be killed”

    https://www.roadwise.co.uk/using-the-road/speeding/the-chance-of-a-pedestrian-surviving/#:~:text=at%2040%20mph%20there%20is%20a%2090%20percent,a%202.5%20percent%20chance%20they%20will%20be%20killed.

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