Start Up No.1492: UK considers ‘vaccine passports’, what Uber’s court loss means, what will Clubhouse do to podcasts?, and more


What happened when Waze became part of Google? The classic story of a startup swallowed by a whale – which the founder has now left. CC-licensed photo by Travis Wise on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Someone’s sitting there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK ministers weigh testing as alternative to vaccine passports • Financial Times

im Pickard, Daniel Thomas, Sarah Neville and Kate Beioley:

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The UK government reassured people on Tuesday they will not face major restrictions if they refuse to have a coronavirus jab with officials considering a recent Covid-19 test result as an alternative to ‘vaccine passports’.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has announced he is considering the introduction of some kind of documentation or smartphone app which people would be asked to show in order to demonstrate they are free of the disease.

Despite Johnson expressing concerns over the “philosophical, ethical” issues raised by the introduction of Covid status certification, people may be asked to produce such proof to enter workplaces, stadiums or restaurants when England’s lockdown ends in the summer.

On Tuesday Johnson announced Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove would lead an official review into the contentious issue.

Critics have warned that a “vaccine passport” could be discriminatory against those who cannot be inoculated because of existing health conditions or, for example, pregnancy. Refusal to take the jab is more common among ethnic minorities in the UK — opening up the potential for racial discrimination claims.

For these reasons government officials said on Tuesday it was hard to envisage a scenario where vaccination was the only criteria for being able to go to an event or enter a workplace after the lockdown ends. Instead the government is much more likely to use a combination of testing and vaccine proof.

At the same time however the review will not rule out the possibility that companies could choose to ban people who have not been vaccinated.

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It’s that last point which is key. The government might not mandate it, but queasy companies (and, unless prevented, insurance companies) will quietly, or not-so-quietly, demand it. Doesn’t matter what you call them: vaccine passports are coming, and will be as essential as yellow fever certificates used to be.

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What you need to know about COVID-19 and hair loss? • Shape

Allie Strickler:

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The latest post-COVID symptom to emerge among “long haulers”? Hair loss.

A scroll through social media groups such as Survivor Corps on Facebook—where COVID-19 survivors connect to share research and firsthand experiences about the virus—and you’ll find dozens of folks opening up about experiencing hair loss after COVID-19.

“My shedding is getting so bad I’m literally putting it up in a scarf so I don’t have to see the hairs falling all day long. Each time I run my hands through my hair, another handful is gone,” wrote one person in Survivor Corps. “My hair has been falling out way too much and I’m scared to brush it,” said another.

In fact, in a survey of more than 1,500 people in the Survivor Corps Facebook group, 418 respondents (nearly one-third of those surveyed) indicated that they’d experienced hair loss after being diagnosed with the virus. What’s more, a preliminary study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found a “high frequency” of hair loss among male COVID-19 patients in Spain. Similarly, the Cleveland Clinic recently noted “an increasing number of reports” related to COVID-19 and hair loss.

Even Alyssa Milano has experienced hair loss as a COVID-19 side effect. After sharing that she was sick with the virus in April, she posted a video on Twitter in which she’s seen brushing literal clumps of hair out of her head. “Thought I’d show you what COVID-19 does to your hair,” she wrote alongside the video. “Please take this seriously. #WearaDamnMask #LongHauler”

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The cause is put down to stress, where the body puts the hair follicles into a “resting” phase to focus energy elsewhere; the eventual result is shedding. I noticed that Boris Johnson seems to be losing his hair quite fast, though it’s impossible to say if that’s the stress of the job, or a post-Covid effect. (Thanks Lloyd Wood for the link.)
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Walk a city somewhere in the world and listen to its radio • Netlify

It might be a while before you actually go somewhere, so this will do the job for you. The London one that I got started a video walking through Covent Garden on a rainy night – very beautiful – and playing a song that I hadn’t heard before, but immediately recognised as Royal Blood. Serendipity.

Plenty of other cities, including Bangkok, Delhi, Dubai, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, through to Tokyo. Options to walk, drive, take a train; day or night; with no, some or a lot of street noise.
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Uber has lost in the Supreme Court. Here’s what happens next • WIRED UK

Natasha Bernal:

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In their judgment on Friday, Supreme Court judges said they made their decision based on five key points. Firstly, Uber sets the fare price and drivers are not permitted to charge more than the fare calculated by the Uber app. Judges determined that therefore, Uber dictates how much drivers are paid for the work they do.

Second, Uber imposes contracts and terms of service and drivers have no say in them. Third, once a driver has logged onto the Uber app, their choice is constrained by Uber by monitoring their acceptance rate and imposing “penalties” if too many trips are declined. Fourth, they found that Uber also exercises “significant control” over the way in which drivers deliver their services, using a passenger ratings system that impacts whether the driver can continue working for Uber.

Finally, they determined that Uber restricts communications between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the particular trip and takes active steps to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship with a passenger capable of extending beyond an individual ride.

…the floodgates will open for around 1,000 similar claims against Uber. It does not mean that all Uber drivers will automatically be classed as workers, but this is the first step in that direction.

The gig economy company has around 60,000 drivers in the UK. If all of these drivers were to require minimum wage (and back pay in compensation), that would severely impact Uber’s bottom line. Prior to its IPO, the company said that it expected drivers to shoulder the burden as it worked to improve its financial results and cut operational losses, which at the time stood at $3bn. At the time, Uber said it aimed to “reduce driver incentives” and expected driver dissatisfaction to increase as a result. It said that its business would be “adversely affected if drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors”.

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That’s put a proper spoke in the wheels, so to speak. An employment relationship where the worker decides how long they want to work each day: quite the 21st century enabling of change.
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Opinion: the GameStop craze was mostly just crazy • The New York Times

Matthew Zeitlin watched the congressional hearings on that stock, you know, that one we all knew everything about:

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So did we really learn anything profound? The marketplace of opinions about the meme stock phenomenon has been as volatile as the trading itself: A series of hypotheses about populism, corruption, masculinity, inequality and price bubbles battled for primacy among those of us who watch cable news and consume think pieces.

At the hearing, various members endorsed different theories. “Many Americans feel that the system is stacked against them, and no matter what, Wall Street always wins,” said the Financial Services Committee chairwoman, Maxine Waters, Democrat of California.

The panel’s ranking Republican member, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, suggested that the issue was less that of a game rigged against small-time investors and more the lack of productive assets for them to buy. “We created a world where it’s easier to buy a lottery ticket than it is to invest in the next Google,” he said. “Is it any wonder why the unhealthy dynamics of GameStop happened?”

All in all, some hedge funds got pummeled, but briefly. Some unlucky retail investors got in on the fun too late, taking serious losses. And there were also plenty of life-changing profits taken by people far beyond the usual suspects. That’s a pretty muddied picture.

The most meaningful thing to glean from all of this, according to Josh Brown, the chief executive of Ritholz Asset Management, may be a large incentive change for market behavior going forward: “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to be that visibly vocally ‘short’ on anything,” he told me. “I think that era has ended where there’s this automatic kneejerk reverence for a $5 billion hedge fund manager with a PowerPoint” pitching other investors on why they should bet against a company.

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That’s the lesson: there is no lesson. Life is random. Nobody’s driving the clattering train.
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Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long? • Paygo

Noam Bardin is one of the co-founders of the drive-mapping app Waze, acquired by Google in 2013, and left a couple of weeks ago:

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I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive start-up leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.

So what happened? I had all the independence I could ask for, no? 

It’s the nature of the beast.

…at Corp-Tech, the salaries are so high and the options so valuable that it creates many misalignments. The impact of an individual product on the Corp-Tech stock is minimal so equity is basically free money. Regardless of your performance (individually) or your product performance, you equity grows significantly so nothing you do has real economic impact on your family. The only control you have to increase your economic returns are whether you get promoted, since that drives your equity and salary payments. This breaks the traditional tech model of risk reward. Corp-Tech gives you no risk returns on equity. Since 2008, FAANG stock have only gone up so employees look at the equity is a fixed part of their salary with the only option of increasing. We tried to build an innovative compensation model but quickly ran into the challenge that employees viewed their equity as a given compensation so why sacrifice it for a risk model?

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There are some other points too. I reiterate my point that Google is hitting a dangerous point in its maturity: corporate sclerosis is a real risk.
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‘Mode confusion’ vexes drivers, carmakers • EE Times

Junko Yoshida:

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EE Times: Define “mode confusion.”

Missy Cummings [former US fighter pilot, now a professor at Duke University]: Mode confusion happens when an operator thinks a system with some kind of embedded autonomy or automation is in one mode and actually it’s in another.

EE Times: Put that in the context of the aviation industry?

Cummings: This came to light in the 1990s with a lot of Airbus accidents. There was a lot of fighting between the pilot and the automation. The pilot thought the aircraft was doing one thing. It was actually doing a different thing. Sometimes the design of the system causes it. Sometimes it’s feedback to the pilot. In one case, there was this one tiny button. You can press that button, but the light is very small. It wasn’t just obvious.

EE Times: As a fighter pilot, have you witnessed or personally experienced mode confusion?

Cummings: I saw this firsthand when one of my peers was returning from a live weapons area to the aircraft carrier, and he forgot to save his weapons.

Right before he got back, his commanding officer in the other plane decided that they would do a fun one-v.-one, which is like a dogfight. My friend, I like to call him Spider (not his real call sign), got the jump on the commanding officer and got in position to fire. There’s this really compelling shoot queue. So, the system will scream at you to shoot. But you needed to make sure the letters “SIM” were beneath, to show you were in simulated mode. Right? But he didn’t double-check. He thought, in his mind, he was in simulated mode. And the font [for SIM] was so small.

And when you’re doing a dogfight, it’s really rough. He pulled the trigger, thinking he was in stimulated mode. The missile went off the rail.

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Now read on at the original to find out what happened. (They never showed you THAT sort of thing in Top Gun.) The consequences of “mode confusion” are potentially as bad in cars.
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Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? • Vulture

Nicholas Quah:

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Let’s call it “live group audio.” Clubhouse is by far the most prominent representation of this archetype for now, but it will soon face intensifying competition. Twitter has Spaces (an effort aided, in part, by its recent acquisition of the team behind Breaker, the social graph-oriented podcast app), Facebook is customarily working on a clone, Mark Cuban is co-founding something called Fireside that carries shades of Twitch, and one imagines there will be a range of more specific, niche-oriented alternatives that will emerge down the line.

In the face of all this, a fair few podcast operators wrote me posing the pertinent question: Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? And to extend the inquiry: Will this new “live group audio” format affect podcasting in either direction?

Well, the answer is yes, of course, probably. For one thing, on the consumption side, all media formats ultimately compete with each other for minutes of attention in a day, and within the specific frontier of audio, one could make the case for thinking in zero-sum terms: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces or whatever is time that could have been spent on, say, Apple Podcasts or Spotify. (It’s also, for that matter, time that could’ve been spent digitally streaming the radio, or listening to music.) But there are also non-zero sum possibilities: time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces could theoretically increase affinity for audio experiences that can be trickled down to elsewhere, which in turn grows, to borrow Edison Research’s terminology, the overall “share of ear.” (Product and M&A possibilities abound for the audio-streaming platforms.) In any case, this isn’t an unprecedented competitive cluster: Think about how Twitch relates to YouTube relates to Netflix relates to cable television. They compete, sure, but they also co-exist.

(For what it’s worth, podcast folk seem pretty mixed on the matter when I asked around. The majority believe it’s a fad; others believe it’ll stick around and will offer strong marketing opportunities. None of them believe Clubhouse to be a meaningful competitor to their interests, though this is to be expected.)

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You could pose it like this: did Twitter and Facebook mean bad things for blogging? Well, a lot more people now generate a lot more content, in total. But a lot of that content is crap. On balance, there might now be more good content than there was before. But it’s harder to find. So: yes. And no.
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Black users turned social app Clubhouse from drab to fun • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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as the app has grown, people of more diverse backgrounds have begun to join, and the Clubhouse experience has changed dramatically.

In particular, the app has carved out a niche among Black users, who have innovated new ways for using it.

A few months ago you might’ve opened the app to a panel discussion on the future of artificial intelligence or the potential of Bitcoin. Now, you’ll still see the tech talk, but it’ll be alongside debates over the music of rappers DMX and 50 Cent or the latest happening in the NBA. Nowadays, you can find folks shooting their shots in dating rooms, cracking jokes in virtual comedy clubs, talking about the latest celebrity gossip or having musical jam sessions with their friends.

This sudden burst of innovation in Clubhouse exemplifies the role Black people often play in America as culture makers and trend setters, said Aniyia Williams, founder of Black & Brown Founders, an organization that supports Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. 

“That ingenuity is the other side of being oppressed. At the end of the day, that’s the thing that unites Black people,” Williams said. “Being a have-not forces you to think and see the world differently, and it makes Black people naturally creative and creators in ways that they’re not even trying. It’s just the way that they operate.”

Several Black users of the app told CNBC that they began to join in May and July. That was after Clubhouse secured a funding round from the firm Andreessen Horowitz that valued the company at approximately $100m. 

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Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about ‘smart cities’ • City Monitor

Sommer Mathis and Alexandra Kanik:

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A further obstacle to the global movement towards smart cities may be the name itself. Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t a particularly descriptive term. What does it actually mean, which technologies count as “smart”, and why did this sector deserve so much attention? These questions were all present prior to 2020. In 2021, the idea that the goal of every city should be to get smarter feels painfully out of touch.

This isn’t to suggest that no useful or important smart technologies have been deployed over the past decade. Many are clearly here to stay. There’s a great deal of consensus at this point, for example, that intelligent street-lighting systems combined with LED bulbs – which enable cities to brighten or dim street lamps based on usage – are both cost-effective and vastly more sustainable. It’s also clear that no city will be able to meaningfully tackle its emissions goals without the widespread adoption of smart meters and digitised grids.

But as with so many other aspects of life on our planet over the past year, it is starting to feel like the end of an era.

“Part of it is that people are sick of talking about this term, ‘smart cities’,” says Story Bellows, a partner at the urban-change management consultancy Cityfi. “People are more focused now on creating outcomes in their communities, whether that’s using technology, whether that’s reinventing processes – kind of the layering of all of those various approaches to making meaningful change on key indicators, whether it’s on health or equity or whatever it is. I think there are still a lot of potential technology drivers and contributors in that, but creating a business model of smart cities just on its own, especially within some of these really big companies, it’s hard to really operationalise and execute.”

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(Via John Naughton)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: First: yesterday’s illustration was of a Honda logo, not a Hyundai logo. We have put in a request with Flickr that the person who captions all the photos be fired for sloppiness.

Second: three or four (I lost count) of the links today came via Benedict Evans’s weekly newsletter. I’d have shamelessly used them a day earlier but I get the free edition, which comes out 24 hours later.

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