Start Up No.1470: how VAR has harmed soccer, VW’s stuttering efforts to catch Tesla, will Biden reshape US tech?, and more


Google has permanently grounded its Loon scheme to provide internet access via balloons. CC-licensed photo by btwashburn on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Wouldn’t you like to know? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

He shoots, he scores – or does he? How VAR changed football for ever • The Guardian

Tom Lamont on the long-term effect of British soccer’s Video Assisted Referee (VAR), a decision review system introduced in 2019:

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I was a young and huffy writer for a sports magazine in 2009 and I’m amazed, Googling my opinions now, how convinced I was that VAR would save us. By giving referees the benefit of replay, I harrumphed, we’d eliminate “incorrect decisions, questionable penalties, phantom goals”.

I got my wish, or some bastardised, comeuppance version of it, in 2016 when, after a couple of years of trials, the laws of football were altered to accommodate VAR. Introduced throughout the world in phases, it became part of top-flight English football in 2019. Kilbane, who’d brooded on that heartbreaking night for Ireland for years, “was all for VAR at first. But quickly, I had reservations. Was this enhancing the game as a spectacle? Was it giving us anything positive?”

By 2019, Kilbane had retired as a footballer and become a TV pundit. “I’m not a player now, I’m a watcher,” he said, “and watching games can be painful at times. Some of the joy’s gone. You can see it on players’ faces sometimes, they’re demoralised. And when do you see a referee actually smile now? It’s a small detail. But a bit of a laugh and a giggle between the referee and the players, that speaks to a connection between them. And I think, every week, with VAR, that connection grows more distant.”

Tony Evans, a columnist for the Independent, memorably called the implementation of VAR “football’s Brexit”. “The majority of people wanted VAR but failed to understand how it might affect the game or how it would be implemented. Then came the realisation that it is unworkable. And no one knows where to go from here.” John Nicholson, author of Can We Have Our Football Back?, and one of the most eloquent VAR dissenters, has said the game has lost its humanity. “Sport is a human pursuit and therefore it’s intrinsically flawed,” Nicholson told me when we spoke one day last winter. “What VAR seems to be saying is, let’s make everything right. No mistakes. But I don’t want everything to be right. I don’t want to fix things in the edit.”

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I don’t understand why VAR isn’t used like reviews in tennis or squash: each player (side) gets a limited number of appeals per half – say, two. If your appeal is upheld, your number stays the same. Making the referee decide is bonkers and is quickly eroding trust. As the article points out, it’s almost impossible for it to be truly accurate either.
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How Volkswagen’s $50bn plan to beat Tesla short-circuited • WSJ

William Boston:

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Software has been running in gas-powered cars for years. An average passenger vehicle typically includes about 80 parts fitted with chips that perform discrete tasks. These chips run code that remains static over a car’s lifetime.

With the shift to electric, computing has become the heart of the vehicle, with a central processor managing the battery, running the electric motors, brakes, lights and other critical systems as well as additional features such as entertainment or heating in the seats. Just like a gas-powered car should be serviced regularly, a modern electric vehicle may receive software updates to improve safety and performance, offer new in-car services, or unlock sources of revenue for the manufacturer.

“The key here is taking this distributed system in the car, dozens if not hundreds of applications, and centralizing everything,” says Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at Nvidia Corp., the graphics chip maker that has become a player in self-driving car technology. “This is very complex, especially with a car where the safety level is critical. You can’t just flip a switch and be a software company.”

In the early years of the ID.3 effort [by VW to build a Tesla competitor], the task to code software for the car was scattered across the organization. VW’s appointment of Christian Senger, previously head of digital services and electric mobility products, as leader of VW’s entire software development, came only in 2019, months before the vehicle’s planned launch.

The group’s first task was to create a coherent organization out of the thousands of programmers spread around the group and begin to shift critical development in-house. The first major project was VW.os, an operating system for ICAS1, the car’s central computer that could be updated remotely.

Another source of complexity was that VW picked different vendors to develop different parts of its software ecosystem.

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You can see how this is a “teaching elephants to dance” moment for VW: Tesla has ensured that electric cars are thought of entirely differently now. It’s often said that you can see the organisational structure of a car company by which controls are where (or not there) on the dashboard. You can’t on an iPhone.
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Moore’s Law and cars • Terence Eden’s Blog

Having made the point that while processing power has followed Moore’s Law, battery life and charging speed haven’t:

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Electric cars are cratering in price. Like the iPhone, no one needs a blinged out Tesla. Sure, there will be plenty of people who buy them. But the vast majority will be satisfied with Moore’s Law driving the cost of motoring down to rock bottom.

At some point – probably in the next three years – there will be a widely available EV for under £100pcm. It’ll probably have a low range – but how often do you drive more than 100 miles? And it’ll only seat 2 people comfortably – perfect for young couples. And it’ll technically be a low-safety quadricycle – but you won’t care because it’ll cost the same as your phone.

And that will anchor people’s expectations for what a car should cost. Yeah, you’ll pay a bit more if you want a “brand” or if you need more seating – but for a huge swathe of people a car will be a monthly expense on par with their phone bill or Internet bill.

Perhaps we’ll even hit a weird point when your top-spec iPhone will come with a “free” car.

Either way, people will soon expect that their cars receive a significant upgrade ever few years. Can the industry keep up with the rate of change that consumers expect from their electronics?

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In the case of cars, there’s no way that they’ll change as quickly; it’s just baked into the organisations, which aren’t used to the white-knuckle ride of the electronics sector. (Think how long it took them to incorporate USB sockets.) Tesla, in that regard, is better-suited to it, given Musk’s experience in tech.

Also, it’s not just the car that needs to be cheap. You need chargers in the road (not everyone has a drive to park and recharge in), and you need chargers at all the other places people stop.
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Biden has a chance to reshape tech. Will he? • OneZero

Will Oremus:

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There are two schools of thought. One recalls the Obama administration’s cozy relationship with Silicon Valley, notes Vice President Kamala Harris’ ties to companies such as Uber, points out Biden’s reliance on tech allies as advisers, and predicts a relatively easy ride for Big Tech over the next four years. We might see some new regulations around online privacy and content moderation, but they’ll be crafted with close input from the industry and tailored in ways that the largest firms are well-equipped to comply with. We might see some new antitrust regulations or enforcement actions but nothing that truly threatens the largest platforms’ dominance.

…The other school of thought observes that momentum for stronger oversight of Big Tech has been building for years on both left and right, that Biden seems personally irked by social media misinformation and has expressed skepticism of Section 230, and that some of his early appointments to tech-relevant positions have been vocal critics of the industry. In this view, the Biden administration is poised to enact sweeping reforms on multiple fronts, and while the industry may have some input, corporate interests will come second to a progressive agenda that prioritizes consumer protections, worker rights, platform accountability, and trustbusting. We’ll get a federal online privacy act, protections for gig-economy workers, a reworking of Section 230, and tough new antitrust legislation that could lead to breakups.

…Recode’s Jason Del Rey reported on Friday that a leading antitrust advocate, Lina Khan, is “gaining traction” as a candidate for the other open FTC seat and possibly the chair. Khan’s legal scholarship has been instrumental in making the case that internet platforms are monopolies, and she was one of the architects of last fall’s House antitrust subcommittee report that recommended sweeping new limits on digital platforms. That report had tech critics on the left practically salivating. Khan did not return OneZero’s request for comment Friday.

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The one to watch is Khan. If she gets an influential post, that will make all the difference.
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This decade’s burning platform • CCS Insight

Ben Wood:

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It’s not easy to pinpoint where LG went wrong but scale is a big part of the story. As we’ve seen numerous times, success requires either deep pockets or substantial scale to sustain a position over time. Once LG’s market share started to erode, it had to make difficult decisions. With competition from Apple and Samsung making a high-tier presence almost impossible, LG lost the ability to price aggressively enough to compete with Chinese rivals in the mid- and low tiers.

That said, there’s no doubting the solid talent and good intentions of the company. Its recent unveiling of a smartphone with an expanding, rollable display was a breath of fresh air for many who have become bored with endless launches of lookalike phones. For a few moments, LG gave us hope. But hope doesn’t keep the lights on. This smartphone, if launched, is expected to have a very high price tag, limiting sales volumes.

LG Electronics is still a vital supplier of components to smartphone makers, and a leading manufacturer of high-end TVs as well as home appliances. In other words, the LG brand is still very valuable.

Mobile phones are arguably the most prolific type of consumer electronics on the planet. With 1.5 billion units, the mobile phone market is attractive to any consumer electronics brand. You only have to look at Sony’s dogged refusal to exit the category, which has also been a loss-making business for Sony for years, to understand why LG has continued to hang on as well.

LG still has operator customers for its phones, mostly in the US and prominently in the prepaid segment, so opportunities do still exist. But there need to be some big changes. One possibility is for LG to outsource all its smartphone development and manufacturing, merely using the LG logo to provide users with a familiar name.

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The BlackBerry option. But this isn’t really a burning platform like Nokia’s Symbian was. It’s just failing to find a sustainable niche.
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Covid and me: 10 days on life support  • Financial Times

Tim Hayward, in an astonishing story of survival:

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I woke feeling unusually short of breath. I’d bought, on the recommendation of a medical friend, a little gadget that measures SAT, the concentration of oxygen in the blood. My score was not out of the ordinary — above 94 — but something felt wrong nonetheless. Just after lunch, I called 111. I felt “out of it” and had an overpowering feeling that life would be a lot better if I could just take one decent full breath. The ambulance was outside in 15 minutes. Two reassuring medics stuck a mask on me, checked a few vital signs and said, “Yep . . . we’re seeing a lot of this . . . looks like Covid.”

Addenbrooke’s Hospital, in Cambridge, is a centre of excellence for all kinds of medicine. Everyone here knows people who work there and we live with a sense of reassurance. Even lying woozily in the back of an ambulance, it’s good to know you’re only a five-minute drive from the best minds, hands and equipment in the country. I remember someone introducing herself as a doctor from behind a mask, a visor, apron and gloves — over the next month, I’d get used to recognising people from a single strip, the bridge of the nose, tired eyes and a muffled voice. By 4pm, I was in a comfortable bed, waiting for the results of my first Covid test and “responding well” to oxygen therapy and Dexamethasone. But I wasn’t destined to get off that lightly — at 9 o’clock that night, they called Al to tell her I was being put on a ventilator.

Most people need to be knocked out to have a tube put down their throat but somehow, I’m told, I remained conscious, though I have no recollection of this at all. 

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The article is free to read, and has been shared a lot since it appeared at the weekend. One point to note is his description of how every so often those who are on a ventilator have to be turned over to lie prone (on their front). This takes nine people to make sure they don’t dislodge the tubes or damage the equipment – or the patient.

Nine people; imagine that in a busy ICU ward. It would be almost continual.
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Android 10 ported to homegrown multi-core RISC-V system-on-chip by Alibaba biz, source code released • The Register

Matthew Hughes:

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Alibaba-owned T-Head Semiconductor says it has ported Android 10 to its Matthew Hughesown RISC-V chips, highlighting increased momentum for the open-source instruction set architecture (ISA) against proprietary alternatives.

…RISC-V is a royalty-free, open-source ISA. Since it was introduced in the early 2010s, interest in the tech has grown, particularly in China and India, where it is seen as a way to reduce their dependence on foreign technology suppliers. While organizations are free to implement the RISC-V specifications in CPU cores for their own chips with or without releasing the source code of those designs, there are a number of blueprints available as open source or for a licensing fee.

For Middle Kingdom [Chinese] businesses wary of falling afoul of US sanctions, RISC-V is something of an insurance policy or escape route – albeit one that still needs time to mature.

Speaking to El Reg, Gartner VP analyst Alan Priestly described the porting of Android 10 as an “interesting development,” and could be useful for adding graphical user interfaces to RISC-V-powered IoT and embedded systems.

…On the mobile front, it might take some time for RISC-V to have a real impact. Compatibility with graphically intensive apps, like games, will be a problem as many game engines are written natively in C and C++, and specifically target the Arm architecture. It would also require some upfront investment from vendors to match incumbent silicon in performance and power efficiency.

“I’m not sure I have seen any vendor going down this route, but it’s always a possibility if Nvidia closes its acquisition of Arm and a vendor has concerns working with a major competitor,” Priestly added.

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So it’s an insurance policy against the US that Chinese companies might be able to use extensively at some point in the future. You can see this getting a lot more attention there quite quickly.
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MeWe CEO: enforcing social media rules is ‘messy’ amid post-Trump surge • NPR

Shannon Bond:

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The alternative social network MeWe had 12 million users at the end of 2020. Barely three weeks into 2021 — and two since a right-wing mob attacked the U.S. Capitol — the company says it’s now passed 16 million.

CEO Mark Weinstein says this popularity is a testament to the reason he launched MeWe in 2016 as an alternative to Facebook. MeWe markets itself as privacy forward. It doesn’t harness users’ data to sell ads or decide what content to show them.

“There’s no targeting, there’s no algorithm manipulating your news feed. No advertisers or marketers can reach or target you with anything,” Weinstein said. Instead, MeWe makes money by selling subscriptions that give members extra features.

…”People are splintering off into these more fringe platforms that essentially have no content moderation or threat-monitoring capability whatsoever,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst who tracks disinformation at the Alethea Group.

…MeWe’s Weinstein resists the comparison to Parler or Gab, which tout themselves as free-speech sites. For one thing, he says, MeWe is serious about putting limits on what people can say.

“I don’t like sites that are anything goes,” Weinstein said. “I think they’re disgusting. Good people right and left and middle can’t handle ‘anything goes.’ We don’t want to be around hate speech. We don’t want to be around violence inciters.” Nor is MeWe meant to be a right-wing “echo chamber,” the CEO said.

While MeWe does have rules, they are more lax than Facebook and Twitter.

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Not having algorithms and relying on subscriptions is a novel move. Hard to compete against free, of course.
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Loon’s bubble bursts: Alphabet shuts down Internet balloon company • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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When Google announced “Project Loon” in 2013, a running joke behind the project was that no one thought a network of flying Internet balloons was a feasible idea. Eight years later, Google has decided that a network of flying Internet balloons is indeed not a feasible idea. Loon announced it is shutting down, citing the lack of a “long-term, sustainable business.”

Loon CEO (Loon was eventually spun out into an Alphabet company) Alastair Westgarth writes:

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We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity—the last billion users: The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.

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Google also cited economic problems when it shut down Titan Aerospace in 2017, which was a plan to deliver the internet via drone.

The name “Loon” came partly from the fact that the project uses flying balloons as a kind of ultra-low-orbit satellite, but also from how “loony” the idea sounded to everyone outside the project.

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The Google Graveyard is filling up pretty fast. Now up to 224 items and counting. The moonshots have such a poor record (Fibre, Loon, Waymo) that they look more like Saturnshots.
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2008: 16:10 vs 16:9 – the monitor aspect ratio conundrum • bit-tech.net

Anthony Leather, writing in 2008:

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If you’re familiar with aspect ratios, you’ll probably know about the fact that in the last four or so years, monitors have switched from being predominately 16:10 (typically 1,680 x 1,050 or 1,920 x 1,200) to 16:9 (usually 1,600 x 900 or 1,920 x 1,080). This is to cut production costs by tying them in with flatscreen TV manufacturing which also sports a 16:9 aspect ratio. As you can see from the above resolutions, you lose a considerable amount of vertical screen real-estate with 16:9 compared to 16:10.

This has real knock-on effects when it comes to viewing photos or webpages, the latter requiring a lot more scrolling for example, while you end up with a narrower field of vision in games too. These are disadvantages that enthusiasts have been crowing about for some time, but having used a larger 27in 16:9 monitor, compared to the seemingly much smaller 24in 16:10 for a few weeks and just having switched back, do you know what I realised?

Even with an extra three inches of diagonal screen space (24in vs 27in) the 27in monitor simply didn’t feel as big. Admittedly it was nice to get rid of the horizontal black lines when watching 1080p movies, but apart from this, even having gotten used to the extra size (which was quite immersive in games it has to be said) I still pined to switch back to the 24in screen.

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You’ll recall that Friday’s edition pointed to an article saying more laptops this year will be using 16:10 rather than 16:9. I’d wondered why, and Lloyd Wood pointed out that there’s a whole Wikipedia article about it, for which this is one of the sources.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Dominic Brown, a writer based in Vancouver, got in touch to point out that there is a better way to consume Twitter on the Twitter web interface:

One can use search to filter your feed so it shows 1) only tweets from people you follow; 2) only their own tweets and not their replies to those of others, and 3) everything in reverse-chronological order:

https://twitter.com/search?q=filter%3Afollows%20-filter%3Areplies&f=live

Twitter seen through this lens is essentially an RSS feed from people you follow, limited to their own original microblog entries and links, without any of the toxic reply wars and endlessly retweeted viral nonsense. I rely on this search exclusively, and never have to look at an algorithmic timeline at all. I’m not sure it’s totally untouched by Twitter’s algorithms, because some of the less-prominent people I follow, who tweet infrequently, either don’t show up at all, or slip past my eyes as I’m scanning—I don’t notice their posts as often as I’d like, anyway. Barring that, this is a pretty solid way to enjoy Twitter and avoid its worst aspects.

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