Start Up No.1541: Apple v Epic opens, Sweden’s failed Covid strategy, ripoff ads still plague Google, Trump’s Facebook day nears, and more


You’ll probably not be surprised to learn that Yahoo(!) has been sold again, this time to a private equity company. CC-licensed photo by Ippei Ogiwara on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Just breathe into your watch. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


At a loose end? Why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?


Here are Apple’s and Epic’s full slideshows arguing why they should win at trial • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Both Apple and Epic have released their opening presentations on why they feel they should win this week’s trial, which is set to determine the future of the App Store. In the documents, which you can look through below, each company lays out its case.

The lawsuit started when Apple removed Epic Games’ Fortnite from the App Store after Epic bypassed Apple’s system for in-app purchases. But it’s turned into a much deeper examination of Apple’s walled-garden approach to technology, and whether some of the walls the company puts up might violate antitrust law.

We took a deeper look at the companies’ legal strategies in advance of the trial, but you can see the same arguments play out in these presentations. Epic uses metaphors of brick walls and gas stations to argue that Apple’s control over what can and cannot be installed on the iPhone is unfair, and that allowing other methods of installing apps wouldn’t harm iOS’s security. Apple’s pushes back saying that Epic getting the openness that it wants would harm not just the App Store but other stores from Sony and Nintendo.

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There’s a Zoom link so you can watch proceedings (Pacific Time 0830-1330, or 1130-1630 Mon-Thu). Password: 715 550. According to Gizmodo, the remote court experience has been pretty terrible already.

Plenty of tasty emails emerging, such as Phil Schiller in 2011 suggesting that once the App Store hit $1bn in annual profit they could look at reducing the 70-30 split in case rival methods (web apps!) become more attractive.
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Did Sweden get Covid wrong? • UnHerd

Freddie Sayers speaks to Johan Giesecke, who was very against lockdowns in Sweden:

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When I remind him of his prediction that countries would end up with similar results after a year, he readily concedes he was mistaken. “One of the things I got wrong a year ago is the rate of spread of this disease. I thought it would spread quicker. And I also thought it would be more similar in different countries. We can see now that there are big differences in the rates of spread in between countries. It may have to do with lockdown, it may have to do with cultural things in these countries. But there is a big difference between countries.”

The difference that is most commonly cited in the ‘case for the prosecution’ against the Swedish strategy is the following chart showing Sweden’s deaths per million dramatically exceeding its neighbouring Scandinavian countries. This is generally considered solid proof that the Swedish strategy failed.

Johan Giesecke disagrees: “The differences between Sweden and its neighbours are much bigger than people realise from the outside — different systems, different cultural traditions…If you compare Sweden to other European countries [such as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium] it’s the other way round. On the ranking of excess mortality, Sweden is somewhere in the middle or below the middle of European countries. So I think it’s really Norway and Finland that are the outliers more than Sweden.”

Explaining what he means by cultural differences, he mentions among other factors that “they’re more sparsely populated. There are less people per square kilometre in these two countries. There are also much fewer people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries.”

So, crucially, if Sweden had instituted a hard lockdown and shut the border earlier, would its death rate have been closer to its Nordic neighbours? “Maybe not,” he says, “I think we would still have more deaths than they have.”

He is also fairly dismissive of charts currently showing that Sweden has the highest level of infection in Europe:

“I don’t think you should compare countries now, while we are still in the pandemic. You should wait until the pandemic has receded before we start comparing countries. If you did that chart a month ago it would be very different. And a month from now? I don’t know but it would be very different. These snapshots may not show the whole truth.”

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Quite what Giesecke is implying is important about “people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries” isn’t followed up, which seems a gigantic lacuna. And aside from the point about children not going to school (which I think we’ll realise was a big error), Giesecke just seems to be Mr Wrong About It All – from levels of prevalence to IFR.
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The hardest puzzle you’ll ever see—and the secret you need to solve it • Nautilus

Brian Gallagher:

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Over his near century of life, [Raymond] Smullyan, 96, became an accomplished pianist and magician, made fundamental contributions to modern logic, and wrote about Taoist philosophy and chess. “He is the undisputed master of logical puzzles,” Bruce Horowitz, one of his former Ph.D. students, has said.

One mark of Smullyan’s legacy is the interest philosophers and logicians still have in his most difficult puzzle, known as the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. The title was given by a philosopher of logic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a colleague of Smullyan’s named George Boolos, who—no slouch himself—adored logical challenges of any sort. He once tested himself by giving a lecture on Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, “one of the most important results in modern logic,” using only single syllable words.

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever goes like this:

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Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for “yes” and “no” are “da” and “ja,” in some order. You do not know which word means which.

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Always up for a challenge, I sat down on my couch, pen and paper in hand, confident I could conquer the puzzle in two hours tops.

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Nope. The answer takes you through some mindbending logic (lots of reliance on “if and only if”), but the explanation is done well.
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Why can’t Google get a grip on ripoff ads? • BBC News

Chris Fox:

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In October 2018, the BBC brought several adverts to Google’s attention that broke its rules. A month later, Google told the BBC it had developed a machine learning system that could prevent the adverts appearing again.

At the time, it only banned adverts for third-party services that charged more than the official government website. However, in May 2020 it changed its policy to ban “adverts for documents and/or services that can be obtained directly from a government or a delegated provider” including “offers of assistance to obtain these products or services”.

Since that change, the BBC has repeated the same set of Google searches on seven separate occasions over a 12-month period. Every time, there were adverts for expensive third-party services when searching for:

Esta; US Esta; apply for Esta; US visa; Canada ETA (a travel document for Canada); apply for Canada ETA; apply for Canada visa; apply for Australia visa; apply driving licence; renew driving licence; driving licence change address.

Some of the websites continued to appear in the adverts even after they were flagged to Google with its reporting tools.

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Verizon sells Yahoo and AOL businesses to Apollo for $5bn • CNBC

Steve Kovach:

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Verizon will sell its media group to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $5bn, the companies announced Monday. The sale allows Verizon to offload properties from the former internet empires of AOL and Yahoo.

Verizon will keep a 10% stake in the company and it will be rebranded to just Yahoo.

The sale will see online media brands under the former Yahoo and AOL umbrellas like TechCrunch, Yahoo Finance and Engadget go to Apollo at much lower valuations than they commanded just a few years ago. Verizon bought AOL for $4.4bn in 2015 and Yahoo two years later for $4.5bn.

Verizon will get $4.25bn in cash from the sale along with its 10% stake in the company. Verizon and Apollo said they expect the transaction to close in the second half of 2021.

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Amazing decline in the perceived value of those properties. Remember February 2008, when Microsoft bid $44.6bn for Yahoo? (And the exchange rate: then, $44.6bn = £22.4bn. Now it would be £32.2bn: a 43% decline.) The list of companies that Yahoo acquired and, for the most part, ruined, is long and includes names like Flickr, Delicious, Geocities and Tumblr. At least that’s (probably) over.
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Whatever the ruling, Facebook’s Oversight Board is a smokescreen • The Real Facebook Oversight Board

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Facebook’s Oversight Board will announce on Wednesday [at 1530 BST, 1030 EST] its decision on a permanent ban of Donald Trump. Obviously Donald Trump has violated Facebook’s terms of service repeatedly, incited hate, spread disinformation, fomented violence and been used as a model for other authoritarian leaders to abuse Facebook. He should be banned forever.

But do not let Facebook’s Oversight Board distract from the need to ensure real accountability for hate speech, election lies, disinformation and other harmful content.

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Anyhow, set your calendars.
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Facebook and the normalisation of deviance • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern (where “normalisation of deviance” refers to just accepting and ignoring how your system allows bad outcomes; it was what led to the Challenger explosion):

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On April 19th, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice-president of content policy, announced that, in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the company would remove hate speech, calls to violence, and misinformation relating to that trial. That accommodation was a tacit acknowledgement of the power that users of the platform have to incite violence and spread dangerous information, and it was reminiscent of the company’s decision, after the November election, to tweak its newsfeed algorithm in order to suppress partisan outlets, such as Breitbart.

By mid-December, the original algorithm was restored, prompting several employees to tell the Times’ Kevin Roose that Facebook executives had reduced or vetoed past efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech on the platform, “either because they hurt Facebook’s usage numbers or because executives feared they would disproportionately harm right-wing publishers.” According to the Tech Transparency Project, right-wing extremists spent months on Facebook organizing their storming of the Capitol, on January 6th. Last week, an internal Facebook report obtained by Buzzfeed News confirmed the company’s failure to stop coördinated “Stop the Steal” efforts on the platform. Soon afterward, Facebook removed the report from its employee message board.

…[The Trump reinstatement/permaban] decision will not be a referendum on Trump’s disastrous presidency, or on his promotion of Stop the Steal. Rather, it will answer a single, discrete question: Did Trump violate Facebook’s policies about what is allowed on its platform? This narrow brief is codified in the Oversight Board’s charter, which says that “the board will review content enforcement decisions and determine whether they were consistent with Facebook’s content policies and values.”

As events of the past few months have again demonstrated, Facebook’s policies and values have normalized the kind of deviance that enables a disregard for regions and populations who are not “big on people’s minds.” They are not democratic or humanistic but, rather, corporate. Whichever way the Trump decision—or any decision made by the Oversight Board—goes, this will still be true.

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Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced on Monday it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

…Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

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Can’t see Clubhouse surviving, then. I’d love to see the usage figures now that lockdown is easing.
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Google’s foldable Pixel phone was just confirmed by a top leaker • BGR

Chris Smith:

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A report about Samsung Display providing foldable OLED panels to various smartphone vendors casually mentioned Google a few days ago. Sources from Korea detailed the various foldable handsets in the works at Oppo and Xiaomi, revealing that these two Chinese smartphone vendors are working on new form factors that resemble Samsung’s foldable phones. The report didn’t say which design the foldable Pixel might employ, but it did reveal that the handset will have a 7.6-inch inward-folding panel from Samsung. All these devices are expected to launch sometime this year.

Google has already been working on adapting the Android experience for foldable devices, so making its own “Pixel Fold” handset makes plenty of sense. The best way to demo new features intended for foldable phones is by using its own hardware. And it looks like the Pixel Fold, or whatever Google ends up calling the handset, is real.

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The Pixel range is already a minority sport; the proportion of Pixel buyers who would want a foldable one might be higher than the general market, but I can’t see it turning the range into top sellers. Again, one has to ask what Google’s purpose is with this. It can’t be making any money from it, and it’s hard to see that the lessons from manufacturing have any applicability elsewhere in the company.
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Apple Watch could add blood sugar and alcohol readings after deal with UK tech company • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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Apple is exploring advanced smartwatch technology that monitors wearers’ blood pressure, glucose and alcohol levels under a deal with a British electronics start-up.

The US tech giant has been revealed as the largest customer of Rockley Photonics, which says its next-generation sensors could be in gadgets next year.

The British company has developed ultra-accurate sensors that read multiple blood signals that are typically only detectable using medical equipment, by beaming infrared light through skin from a module on the back of a smartwatch.

The more limited modules in today’s devices are able to detect measures such as heart rate but the ability to track variables such as blood glucose, which could detect diabetes, has been a long-term goal for wearable technology makers.

Rockley, which has offices in Oxford, Wales and Silicon Valley, revealed its relationship with Apple in listing documents as it prepares to go public in New York. 

The filings said that Apple accounted for the majority of its revenue in the last two years and that it has an ongoing “supply and development agreement” with the company under which it expects to continue to rely on Apple for most of its income.

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It seems surprising that you could capture sufficient data to record that sort of data at all accurately. But if it can measure glucose at all accurately, that will make it an automatic purchase for diabetics. And alcohol level, well, useful for drivers…
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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