Start Up No.1507: the FTC’s 2013 mistakes on Google, the turbine-less wind turbine, WHO says Covid started on farms, and more


Your second Covid vaccination shot may make you feel worse than the first. Why? CC-licensed photo by Puddin Tain on Flickr.


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A selection of 12 links for you. A warhead in every pot. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Washington fumbled the future • POLITICO

Leah Nylen on what documents show about how the FTC’s economists argued against taking antitrust action against Google back in 2013:

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Nearly a decade ago, the documents show, the FTC’s investigators uncovered evidence of how far Google was willing to go to ensure the primacy of the search engine that is the key to its fortunes, including tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations. But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62% of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all US smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The FTC’s decision to let Google off the hook reflected an era when the Obama administration had a close relationship with Silicon Valley and Americans held largely positive views toward the emerging tech giants. But the documents also demonstrate how the Obama-era FTC took a cautious approach to antitrust enforcement, deferring to the wisdom of the agency’s economists over its lawyers — an attitude anti-monopoly advocates are now questioning as Congress considers sweeping changes to antitrust laws.

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I was reporting on the topic at the time, and the investigative part of the FTC was all in favour of taking antitrust action against Google, on the basis that it was favouring its own results and suppressing rivals. The economists were against taking action. The FTC commissioners went with the economists.

The point about smartphones is amazing. By mid-2012 iOS and Android had 85% of the US smartphone installed base, and all rivals were in single digits.
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Good vibrations: bladeless turbines could bring wind power to your home • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

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“We are not against traditional windfarms,” says David Yáñez, the inventor of Vortex Bladeless. His six-person startup, based just outside Madrid, has pioneered a turbine design that can harness energy from winds without the sweeping white blades considered synonymous with wind power.

The design recently won the approval of Norway’s state energy company, Equinor, which named Vortex on a list of the 10 most exciting startups in the energy sector. Equinor will also offer the startup development support through its tech accelerator programme.

The bladeless turbines stand at 3 metres high, a curve-topped cylinder fixed vertically with an elastic rod. To the untrained eye it appears to waggle back and forth, not unlike a car dashboard toy. In reality, it is designed to oscillate within the wind range and generate electricity from the vibration.

…“Our technology has different characteristics which can help to fill the gaps where traditional windfarms might not be appropriate,” says Yáñez.

These gaps could include urban and residential areas where the impact of a windfarm would be too great, and the space to build one would be too small. It plugs into the same trend for installing small-scale, on-site energy generation, which has helped homes and companies across the country save on their energy bills.

This could be wind power’s answer to the home solar panel, says Yáñez.

“They complement each other well, because solar panels produce electricity during the day while wind speeds tend to be higher at night,” he says. “But the main benefit of the technology is in reducing its environmental impact, its visual impact, and the cost of operating and maintaining the turbine.”

The turbine is no danger to bird migration patterns, or wildlife, particularly if used in urban settings. For the people living or working nearby, the turbine would create noise at a frequency virtually undetectable to humans.

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Three metres high really isn’t much. You could put a few in the back garden. Hang some washing between them. Win-win-win.
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WHO points to wildlife farms in southern China as likely source of pandemic • WBUR News

Michaelenn Doucleff:

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many [wildlife] farms are located in or around a southern province, Yunnan, where virologists found a bat virus that’s genetically 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Second, the farms breed animals that are known to carry coronaviruses, such as civet cats and pangolins.

Finally, during the WHO’s mission to China, [Peter] Daszak said the team found new evidence that these farms were supplying vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where an early outbreak of COVID-19 occurred.

The market was shut down overnight on Dec. 31, 2019, after it was linked to cases of what was then described as a mysterious pneumonia-like illness.

“There was massive transmission going on at that market for sure,” says Linfa Wang, a virologist who studies bat viruses at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. He’s also part of the WHO investigative team. Wang says that after the outbreak at the Huanan market, Chinese scientists went there and looked for the virus.

“In the live animal section, they had many positive samples,” Wang says. “They even have two samples from which they could isolate live virus.”

And so Daszak and others on the WHO team believe that the wildlife farms provided a perfect conduit between a coronavirus-infected bat in Yunnan (or neighboring Myanmar) and a Wuhan animal market.

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The part about testing in the Wuhan market finding positive samples is completely new to me. In more than a year of reports about this, I’ve never heard that before. Equally, the suggestion that Covid actually developed at one of the big animal farms makes far more sense than that it leaked from a lab. Every other zoonosis (animal to human disease) has started that way – by natural animal-human contact.
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New Nest Hub features clever sleep tracking to make it the ultimate bedside assistant • Pocket Lint

Chris Hall:

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the biggest change is in how Google is positioning this device. It still has no camera, so Google sees this as a bedside device, able to ensure your privacy because there’s no camera that might initial a call while you’re enjoying a little private time in the bedroom.

What Google is adding is sleep tracking. That’s seen the addition of Google’s Soli hardware to the Nest Hub, so that it can use the Motion Sense technology to track your sleep.

Soli uses a type of radar that can detect motion and interpret that. Previously, Google used it for some motion control on the Pixel 4, although that seemed a little silly – offering hands-free gestures on a device that you essentially always operate when you’re holding it.

Now Soli will be set to task to detect motion patterns and breathing of the person sleeping closest to the Nest Hub to power the new Sleep Sensing functions.

On top of motion, Nest Hub can also listen out for noises – coughing or snoring – while being able to monitor light conditions and temperature. In that way, it will monitor how you sleep and the conditions you’re trying to sleep in.

To protect your privacy, none of this raw data is sent out to Google services, everything happens on the Nest Hub itself.

From this information, Google will present you with a sleep summary – and having learnt your sleeping habits and monitored the quality of your sleep for a couple of days, can make suggestions to improve your sleep.

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Apparently the team discussed whether to put a camera in it for about two minutes. “Nobody wants a camera in the bedroom,” one said, in a statement of the blindingly obvious. And they moved on.

I’m still completely unconvinced that you can “improve” your sleep, apart from going to bed earlier, not using your phone in bed, and waking up later.
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The Telegraph’s approach to performance pay won’t reward clickbait • One Man And His Blog

Adam Tinworth says we’ve got it all wrong about the Telegraph moves quoted in The Guardian:

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The Telegraph’s [editor] Chris Evans is clearly not talking about clickbait, or even traffic:

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“It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

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Notice nothing in that quote specifies traffic: just retaining and attracting subscribers. I’ve been working with paywalled sites for nearly 25 years, and those measures are way more indicative of such sites’ success than raw traffic, much of which will never convert to paying subscribers.

…I’m much less worried about this leading to clickbait than the Twitter commentariat. Clickbait is common, easy to replicate, and available everywhere — you really don’t need to pay for it. The Sun’s short-lived paywall experiment proved that nicely. Conversely, the role of breadth of journalism in keeping readers subscribing has been a key element in the success of, say, The Times. Generally, speaking, that which attracts and converts readers can be quite different from what keeps them subscribing.

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TikTok wants to keep tracking iPhone users with state-backed workaround • Ars Technica

Patrick McGee and Yuan Yang:

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the state-backed China Advertising Association, which has 2,000 members, has launched a new way to track and identify iPhone users called CAID, which is being widely tested by tech companies and advertisers in the country.

ByteDance, the owner of the social video app TikTok, referred to CAID in an 11-page guide to app developers obtained by the Financial Times, suggesting that advertisers “can use the CAID as a substitute if the user’s IDFA is unavailable.”

People close to Tencent and ByteDance confirmed the companies were testing the system, but both companies declined to comment.

Several efforts are under way to get around Apple’s rules, but CAID is the biggest challenge to them yet, and the iPhone maker declined to comment directly on it. But in a move that sets the stage for a major confrontation, Apple denied that it would grant any exceptions.

“The App Store terms and guidelines apply equally to all developers around the world, including Apple,” the company said. “We believe strongly that users should be asked for their permission before being tracked. Apps that are found to disregard the user’s choice will be rejected.”

One person familiar with the situation said Apple would be able to detect which apps use the new tool and block them from its App Store in China if it wanted to.

But Zach Edwards, founder of Victory Medium, a tech consultancy, said: “They can’t ban every app in China. If they did it would effectively trigger a series of actions that would get Apple kicked out of China.”

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(Originally in the Financial Times.)
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Facebook explores paid deals for new publishing platform • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Facebook will soon begin testing partnerships with a small group of independent writers for its new publishing platform, sources tell Axios.

The platform, which includes tools for journalists to build actual websites, in addition to newsletters, will be tested with a small group of writers, some of whom Facebook plans to pay to help get the tools off the ground.

The publishing platform, which has yet to be officially named, is free-to-use, and will be integrated with Facebook Pages, sources say.

The Pages integration will allow writers, journalists, and other types of professional experts to publish content outside of text, like live videos and “Stories” status updates.

In time, Facebook plans to build tools within the platform that allow writers to monetize their websites and newsletters with subscriptions, and possibly other forms of revenue down the line.

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And if you believe this will last any length of time, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Facebook has pulled this sort of bait-and-switch many times before. The biggest was over video views, where it produced false statistics about how long people were spending watching videos. For videos that were less popular, it produced average viewing times that were *longer* than the videos – giving the false impression that those videos were somehow doing really well.

Any writer is going to be at the mercy of Facebook’s recommendation algorithm. And recommendations can go down as well as up.
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Why the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine can make you feel lousy • Mercury News

Lisa Krieger:

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Q: Why does the second dose cause more problems?

Grace Lee, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine: The first shot teaches your immune cells to recognize the virus; it’s revving up. With the second shot, there are more immune cells ready and waiting to launch a major defense. The muscle ache and fever come from inflammation; your immune cells are sending out an alarm in the form of chemicals called cytokines.

“Your immune system is ‘primed’ with dose one. You’re getting ‘boosted’ with dose two. That reflects your body’s quick response. … Your body is seeing it for the second time and remembering it, and is developing the powerful immune response that it needs to respond to infection.”

Q. What can I do to counter the side effects?

GL. Don’t be tempted to skip your second dose. The Pfizer-BioNTech shots are spaced 21 days apart; the Moderna shots are 28 days apart. While the first dose provides some protection around 12 days, you won’t be fully protected until two weeks after your second dose.

If possible, schedule the second dose when you can get some extra rest. If you experience intense side effects, it’s safe to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Ice may help a sore arm. Serious allergic reactions are very rare.

Q: Are there age differences in the response?

William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine: Older adults tend to have a milder response than younger people because “their immune systems are not responding as vigorously as a young person’s, but they still get 95% protection from the virus.”

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Dropbox will have a free password manager in April — if you’ve got 50 or fewer passwords • The Verge

Ian Carlos Campbell:

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Dropbox is adding a new feature on top of its usual offerings of storage and file sharing for free Basic accounts. Dropbox Passwords, the password management feature the company introduced for paying customers in 2020, will be free for Dropbox Basic accounts in April — with a new, arbitrary limit of 50 passwords that makes it seem suspiciously like a way to upsell you on a paid Dropbox account.

Now that LastPass is putting a device limit on its free plans, many are looking for a free alternative, and Dropbox Passwords will indeed allow you to sync your passwords across three devices for free. Like other password managers, it exists as a web browser extension, a mobile app on iOS and Android, and desktop applications on MacOS, Windows, and Linux. But other free password managers, like Bitwarden, offer unlimited passwords for free.

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Dropbox is all about the upsell these days. It’s quite exhausting to have to keep fighting it off. Steve Jobs was dismissive of it, calling it “a feature, not a product”. It’s a really good feature, but Jobs was right. Apple has built both into its ecosystem.
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China Signal users report difficulty accessing messaging app • Bloomberg

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Signal, an encrypted messaging app that competes with the likes of Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp, appears to have been blocked in China, the latest move by Beijing to crack down on social media platforms.

From Monday night, Signal users reported difficulties using the app in China without the help of a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows users to mask their location and access banned foreign communication services like Gmail and Twitter. Previously, no such software was needed to access Signal.

It isn’t immediately clear if this is a permanent ban, as Chinese regulators have been known to sometimes ramp up controls as a trial run only to ratchet them down later. The Cyberspace Administration of China didn’t respond immediately to a faxed request for comment Tuesday morning. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment when asked about access to the app at a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

Signal has been a popular tool among political dissidents and journalists seeking a communication method that minimizes the risk of messages being intercepted by government censors and bad actors. In particular, the app has gained traction among China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur diaspora.

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Google Play drops commissions to 15% from 30%, following Apple’s move last year • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

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The Android-maker said on Tuesday that starting July 1, it is reducing the service fee for Google Play to 15% — down from 30% — for the first $1m of revenue developers earn using Play billing system each year. The company will levy a 30% cut on every dollar developers generate through Google Play beyond the first $1m in a year, it said.

Citing its own estimates, Google said 99% of developers that sell goods and services with Play will see a 50% reduction in fees, and that 97% of apps globally do not sell digital goods or pay any service fee.

Google’s new approach is slightly different from Apple, which last year said it would collect 15% rather than 30% of App Store sales from companies that generate no more than $1m in revenue through the company’s platform. That drop doesn’t apply to iOS apps if a developer’s revenue on Apple platform exceeds $1m.

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So imagine a company that gets gross revenues of $2m. With Apple, it keeps $1.4m. With Google, it keeps $1.55m. Not trivial – that’s about a whole developer’s salary.

Far more interesting is that 97%/99% quote. So only 3% of all apps charge. And 99% of those 3% don’t generate more than $1m. (If I’m interpreting the – slightly confusing? – statement correctly.) So 1% do. With just shy of 3 million apps on the Play Store, that means about 30,000 apps generating over $1m.

That suggests that Google Play generates gross revenues of $30bn. Which is about where estimates put it.
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iOS security fixes could soon be delivered separately from other updates, beta code suggests • 9to5Mac

Filipe Esposito:

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Apple has never been flexible when it comes to iOS updates. While users can choose not to install an update, you will be left without security fixes if you don’t install the latest version of iOS available. Although Apple still updates iOS 12 for older iPhones and iPads, devices currently supported by the company don’t have the option to run this operating system with the latest security updates.

A new section added to the iOS software update menu indicates that Apple will provide standalone security updates for iPhone and iPad users. Users would be able to choose whether they want to install only security updates or full iOS updates.

Although we don’t yet have more details about this change, macOS already offers a similar method of updates. When you have a Mac running an older version of the operating system, such as macOS Mojave, Apple delivers separate security updates so that users can get security patches and bug fixes without having to install the latest macOS version available.

The new code found in iOS 14.5 also mentions that once you download a specific update, such as a security update, you may need to delete it before installing another available iOS update. It’s hard to tell how exactly Apple plans to implement this in iOS, but one possibility is to continue offering security updates for iOS 14 after the release of iOS 15, so that users can choose to not update to the latest major version, but keep receiving important security patches.

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Long overdue, though there’s no indication on quite how “soon” this might actually happen. As this points out, the capability is there on the desktop, so must be feasible on the phone.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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