Start Up No.1540: Apple’s antitrust cases double up, a geolocation tour de force, AirTag teardowns, Basecamp implodes, and more


Although Coleridge never finished Kubla Khan, we can train the AI system GPT-3 to do it, really quite successfully. What next? CC-licensed photo by Granpic on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not H. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Little reminder:
Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

EU says Apple’s 30% cut from rival music providers violates competition law • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The EC sent a Statement of Objections to Apple reflecting its preliminary conclusion that Apple violated European Union competition law. This kicks off a legal process in which Apple will be able to respond in writing and request an oral hearing before a final judgment is made. The EC took today’s action in response to a complaint from Spotify.

“If the case is pursued, the EU could demand concessions and potentially impose a fine of up to 10% of Apple’s global turnover—as much as $27bn, although it rarely levies the maximum penalty,” according to Reuters.

The European regulatory body said it “takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store” and with Apple-imposed “restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

The commission said it found that “Apple has a dominant position in the market for the distribution of music streaming apps through its App Store” and that it abused its dominant position by imposing rules on music streaming apps that compete against the Apple Music service.

“Our concern is that Apple distorts competition in the music streaming market to the benefit of Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music,” said EC Executive VP Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of competition policy. Vestager said that “Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices” by “charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding [third-party app developers] from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

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In Apple versus Epic Games, courtroom battle is only half the fight • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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Epic Games faces an uphill legal battle against Apple Inc in an antitrust trial starting Monday, and a defeat for the maker of “Fortnite” could make it harder for U.S. government regulators to pursue a similar case against the iPhone maker, legal experts said.

But win or lose at the trial, Epic, which has pursued an aggressive public relations campaign against Apple alongside its court pleadings, may have already accomplished a major goal: Drawing Apple squarely into the global debate over whether and how massive technology companies should be regulated.

Apple has mostly succeeded in staying out of the regulatory crosshairs by arguing that the iPhone is a niche product in a smartphone world dominated by Google’s Android operating system. But that argument has become harder to sustain with the number of iPhone users now exceeding 1 billion.

Epic alleges Apple has such a strong lock on those customers that the app store constitutes a distinct market for software developers over which Apple has monopoly power. Apple is abusing that power, Epic argues, by forcing developers to use Apple’s in-app payment systems – which charge commissions of up to 30% – and to submit to app-review guidelines the gaming company says discriminate against products that compete with Apple’s own.

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Epic claims that the App Store generates an operating profit margin (ie after costs are taken out) of 78%. Apple says that’s “simply wrong” and looks forward to refuting it in court. Should be fun.
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John Doe 29: image from FBI child exploitation case geolocated to Turkey • bellingcat

Carlos Gonzales:

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In 2020, a new set of photos linked to the case were published in an FBI poster. Images from this set labelled BB001 and BB002 are shown below.

After careful analysis, we were able to geolocate the poolside seating area in one of the images to a hotel near to the town of Side in Turkey (coordinates: 36.810011, 31.346188). Again, and to be clear, no person or commercial establishments, directly or indirectly referenced in this article, is suspected of being involved in the abuse of children.

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Put like this, it sounds a bit blah. There was a photo! They geolocated it! Big deal!

Then you go and look at the photos, and you begin to think: how in the world could you pinpoint a place – and an approximate time, as well – based on so little information? It makes “enhance, enhance” in Blade Runner look pretty tame.
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The computers are getting better at writing, thanks to artificial intelligence • The New Yorker

Stephen Marche:

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GPT-3 is a tool. It does not think or feel. It performs instructions in language. The OpenAI people imagine it for “generating news articles, translation, answering questions.” But these are the businessman’s pedantic and vaguely optimistic approaches to the world’s language needs.

For those who choose to use artificial intelligence, it will alter the task of writing. “The writer’s job becomes as an editor almost,” Gupta said. “Your role starts to become deciding what’s good and executing on your taste, not as much the low-level work of pumping out word by word by word. You’re still editing lines and copy and making those words beautiful, but, as you move up in that chain, and you’re executing your taste, you have the potential to do a lot more.” The artist wants to do something with language. The machines will enact it. The intention will be the art, the craft of language an afterthought.

For writers who don’t like writing—which, in my experience, is nearly all of us—Sudowrite may well be a salvation. Just pop in what you have, whatever scraps of notes, and let the machine give you options. There are other, more obvious applications. Sudowrite was relatively effective when I asked it to continue Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” I assume it will be used by publishers to complete unfinished works like Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” or P. G. Wodehouse’s “Sunset at Blandings.” With a competent technician and an editor-writer you could compose them now, rapidly, with the technology that’s available. There must be a market for a new Austen or Wodehouse. I could do either in a weekend.

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Marche includes a couple of examples of work kinda-sorta written by GPT-3: a continuation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – the latter famously unfinished.
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Renew and Refill Bob Cassette for a fraction of the cost! • dekuNukem on Github

“dekuNukem”:

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With shipping and VAT added, it costs a whopping £43 ($60) for 90 washes! That is 48p (67c) per wash. It might not sound like much, but it quickly adds up.

Over a year of daily washes, it would have cost £174 ($242) in Bob cassettes alone! Imagine paying that much recurring cost for a dishwasher! And remember its internet connectivity? Yep, the whole reason is that it can reorder more cassettes automatically when it runs low, just like those wretched HP inkjet printers.

It is clear that Daan Tech are banking on the convenience of subscription models. Now I’m sure a lot of people would have no problem with that, but personally, I can think of a few better uses of my £174 than on dishwasher detergents.

Another point to consider is what happens if they went bust? No more cassettes, and now you have a fancy paperweight, like so many unnecessarily-smart appliances before it.

Credit where credit’s due, Daan Tech didn’t completely lock down the machine with Bob cassettes. Once empty, you can leave it there and add detergents manually. However, they strongly suggest against this, quoting a few drawbacks:

• It’s a chore to measure and add them manually at each wash.
• Dosing can be tricky, as most tablets, pods, and liquids are for full-size dishwashers.
• Multi-stage dosing impossible, can’t add rinse aid after main wash.
• Limescale might develop over time and damage the machine.

It is clear that this dishwasher was designed with Bob cassettes in mind, and I do enjoy their set-and-forget simplicity. That’s why I made it a priority to investigate how it works.

Looking at the cassette, we can see it has a small circuit board in the middle, with 4 contacts on each side. At the receptacle, we can see the connector for the PCB, as well as two hoses to pump out the detergent during a wash…there are only 4 wires going into the machine. Coupled with the fact that Bob needs to read the cassette to determine how many washes are left, and write to update it after a wash, I had a pretty good guess of what that mystery PCB contains.

The answer is an I2C EEPROM, a popular type of non-volatile memory. EEPROMs retain whatever’s inside even after losing power, and are very cheap, making them perfect at holding small configuration data in embedded systems.

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So of course he looked at the code inside it, and hacked it so he could refill the cassette as he liked.
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AirTag teardown part one: yeah, this tracks • iFixit

Sam Goldheart:

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Unlike the keychain-ready competition, the AirTag’s perfectly round exterior provides no place for you to thread a keyring—at least not easily. The official method to attach one of these to your keys is (wait for it): purchase accessories. But if you can hold a drill steady—and are willing to take a $29 risk—we’ve got a DIY hack for you.

After some reconnaissance inside our first AirTag, we grabbed a 1/16” drill bit and carefully punched a hole through the second tracker in our four-pack—after removing the battery, of course. We miraculously managed to avoid all chips, boards, and antennas, only drilling through plastic and glue. The best part? The AirTag survived the operation like a champ and works as if nothing happened. 

Amazingly, the sound profile didn’t seem to change much: measuring the decibel level  at one iPhone-Mini-length away from the AirTag, the Hole-y One™ was within a +/- 1 dB margin of error from a brand new ‘Tag (about 78-80 dB). Considering Apple is using the plastic dome itself as the speaker diaphragm, this comes as a pleasant surprise.

One last warning before we share our drilling secrets: attempt this at your own risk! Drilling in the wrong place can cause serious damage, so don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to potentially turn your tracker into a very light paperweight. With that out of the way, here’s a hastily-masked video demonstration of the “safe zones” as we see them.

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You’d have to be brave. But no doubt quite a few people are going to try this, with all sorts of mixed outcomes. But the teardown shows that these are really, really compact devices, especially compared with rivals (though those do have.. somewhere to thread into).
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A third of Basecamp’s workers resign after a ban on talking politics • The New York Times

Sarah Kessler:

»

About a third of Basecamp’s employees have said they are resigning after the company, which makes productivity software, announced new policies banning workplace conversations about politics.

Jason Fried, Basecamp’s chief executive, detailed the policies in a blog post on Monday, calling “societal and political discussions” on company messaging tools “a major distraction.” He wrote that the company would also ban committees, cut benefits such as a fitness allowance (with employees receiving the equivalent cash value) and stop “lingering and dwelling on past decisions.”

Basecamp had 57 employees, including Mr. Fried, when the announcement was made, according to a staff list on its website. Since then, at least 20 of them have posted publicly that they intend to resign or have already resigned, according to a tally by The New York Times. Basecamp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Fried and David Hansson, two of Basecamp’s founders, have published several books about workplace culture, and news of their latest management philosophy was met with a mix of applause and criticism on social media.

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The past week was the most amazing shot/chaser sequence, starting with Fried’s “hey, no more politics at work!” blogpost through to mass resignations on Friday evening. I guess that’s one way to evaluate management technique.

The resignations included the entire iOS app team for Hey, the email product, so it’s going to be fun to watch how that progresses over the next few months. I suspect we’ll discover that developers are fungible, but Basecamp’s/Hey’s reputation is always going to be marked by this event.
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Crypto miners are killing free CI • Layer CI

Colin Chartier:

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At LayerCI, we help developers build full-stack websites by creating per-branch preview environments and running end-to-end tests for them automatically. This is called CI (Continuous Integration.)

Because developers can run arbitrary code on our servers, they often violate our terms of service to run cryptocurrency miners as a “build step” for their websites. You can learn more in our docs.

“testronan” is an avid Flask user. Every hour they make a commit to their only GitHub repository: “testronan/MyFirstRepository-Flask”

The prolific programmer is certainly making sure that their contributions are well tested. Their repository contains configurations for five different CI providers: TravisCI, CircleCI, GitHub Actions, Wercker, and LayerCI.

Seemingly quite proficient at shell scripting, their CI tasks run “listen.sh”: A shell script that combines a complicated NodeJS script with some seemingly random numbers:

(sleep 10; echo 4; sleep 2; echo “tex.webd”;sleep 2; echo 7; sleep 1; echo 1; sleep 1; echo “exit”; sleep 2) | stdbuf -oL npm run commands

MyFirstRepository-Flask has nothing to do with Flask or webservers. It hosts cryptocurrency mining scripts that send WebDollars to an anonymous address. The numbers correspond to installation options for the NodeJS implementation of WebDollar.

…At WebDollar’s April peak price of $.0005, the repository was making $77USD per month – a considerable sum in many countries, especially given that the only tools required are a laptop and an internet connection.

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Perhaps crypto is best thought of as a parasite, consuming every computing resource that it possibly can? In which case, what’s the cure?
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He tried to cash in on the NFT craze by auctioning a house. It didn’t work • CNN

Anna Bahney, CNN Business:

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For months, Shane Dulgeroff had watched NFTs – or non-fungible tokens – for pieces of digital art, baseball cards and other collectibles sell for mind-boggling amounts.

Then, the 27-year-old California real estate broker had an idea. What if he commissioned a digital rendering of a home that he owned and auctioned it off as an NFT, along with the real world property?

Within weeks, he had a technicolor work of digital art by Kii Arens, a contemporary, pop artist and graphic designer. Dulgeroff bundled it with his two-unit duplex in Thousand Oaks, California, which he advertised as bringing in an annual rental income of $60,000. The offering was put up for auction at OpenSea, an online marketplace for digital assets that are backed by a blockchain, like Ethereum.

“This is going down in history,” Dulgeroff said before the auction opened on April 9th. “Not only is it the world’s first property to be sold this way, but once this sale closes, it will open up people’s eyes to a new way to sell real estate.”

When Dulgeroff first put the NFT up for auction, it wasn’t immediately clear how much the house and artwork might go for. But given the booming market for NFTs and the established and reliable rental returns on the investment property — along with the bragging rights of having bought a property through an NFT — he envisioned it could bring in a huge number.

“I keep seeing this number: $20 million,” he said at the time. “It could be in that ballpark.”

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He got zero bids. Why?

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While Dulgeroff said he had heard from interested buyers from the real estate world, they had questions about how the title would transfer, whether it had to be an all-cash payment and how to get their money onto the platform.

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Oh, so fussy! Wanting to know if they’d actually own it!
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Joshua Wolf Shenk resigns as editor of the Believer magazine • Los Angeles Times

Dorany Pineda:

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In a farewell letter shared with the staff, Shenk said his resignation followed “a dumb, reckless choice to disregard appropriate setting and attire for a Zoom meeting. I crossed a line that I can’t walk back over. I sorely regret the harm to you — and, by extension, to the people we serve. I’m sorry.”

The incident occurred during a video meeting in early February with about a dozen staff members of the Believer and BMI, according to three sources who were in the meeting.

According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk’s advisor, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.

He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk’s computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.

In a statement to The Times, Shenk apologized for the pain the incident caused to the BMI staff, who he called “the most talented, devoted and creative people I’ve ever worked with.

“After my lapse in judgment, I decided to resign so that BMI’s work — sparking culture in Southern Nevada, publishing The Believer, and hosting writers persecuted in their home countries — could best continue in their exceptionally capable hands,” Shenk said.

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Please, if you’re going to use Zoom (or other video calling systems) this week, don’t try to outdo this. And don’t try to do this.
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Shipping containers are falling overboard at a rapid rate • SupplyChainBrain

Ann Koh:

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The shipping industry is seeing the biggest spike in lost containers in seven years. More than 3,000 boxes dropped into the sea last year, and more than 1,000 have fallen overboard so far in 2021. The accidents are disrupting supply chains for hundreds of U.S. retailers and manufacturers such as Amazon and Tesla.

There are a host of reasons for the sudden rise in accidents. Weather is getting more unpredictable, while ships are growing bigger, allowing for containers to be stacked higher than ever before. But greatly exacerbating the situation is a surge in e-commerce after consumer demand exploded during the pandemic, increasing the urgency for shipping lines to deliver products as quickly as possible.

“The increased movement of containers means that these very large containerships are much closer to full capacity than in the past,” said Clive Reed, founder of Reed Marine Maritime Casualty Management Consultancy. “There is commercial pressure on the ships to arrive on time and consequently make more voyages.”

After gale-force winds and large waves buffeted the 364-meter One Apus in November, causing the loss of more than 1,800 containers, footage showed thousands of steel boxes strewn like Lego pieces onboard, some torn to metal shreds. The incident was the worst since 2013, when the MOL Comfort broke in two and sank with its entire cargo of 4,293 containers into the Indian Ocean.

In January, the Maersk Essen lost about 750 boxes while sailing from Xiamen, China, to Los Angeles. A month later, 260 containers fell off the Maersk Eindhoven when it lost power in heavy seas.

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Of course it’s our fault. Damn consumers, wanting things, forcing ships to overturn.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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