Start Up No.1545: Covid vs climate change, China used iPhone contest hack against Uyghurs, Clubhouse hits Android, and more

Is it real or fake? What look like satellite photos could turn out to be deepfakes. CC-licensed photo by pinboke_planet on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Warming up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What does Covid teach us about climate change? • Tim Harford


Climate change because of greenhouse gas emissions is well under way, but at a speed measured in decades. As a result, it is almost impossible to cover climate change as a pure news story. Instead, we journalists write about parallel matters, such as the convening of global conferences or the publishing of portentous reports. The true story is enormous but never quite news.

Activists now use the phrase “climate emergency” in an effort to prompt a sense of urgency. I sympathise: we have delayed obvious policy responses such as carbon pricing for a quarter of a century, and every further delay makes the problem graver. But such delays will always be tempting.

For those of us concerned about a lack of action on the environment, this discouraging reality is a function of the very word “news”. It is not easy to cover something that happens in extreme slow motion, whether it is an existential threat such as climate change or an inspiring success story such as the availability of vaccines for childhood diseases.

Greta Thunberg complained to the Financial Times last week that “the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis”. She is right about that, and it never will be. We will never have a daily afternoon news conference in which the prime minister explains to the nation how the climate has changed over the past 24 hours.

That, then, is the disheartening difference between climate change and Covid-19. Now for the equally disheartening similarity: both are amenable to disinformation, polarisation and wishful thinking.


Don’t despair, though; he does have some good news.
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Why did it take so long to accept the facts about Covid’s spread? • The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci:


Linsey Marr, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech who made important contributions to our understanding of airborne virus transmission before the pandemic, pointed to two key scientific errors — rooted in a lot of history — that explain the resistance, and also opened a fascinating sociological window into how science can get it wrong and why.

First, Dr. Marr said, the upper limit for particles to be able to float is actually 100 microns, not five microns, as generally thought. The incorrect five-micron claim may have come about because earlier scientists conflated the size at which respiratory particles could reach the lower respiratory tract (important for studying tuberculosis) with the size at which they remain suspended in the air.

Dr. Marr said that if you inhale a particle from the air, it’s an aerosol. She agreed that droplet transmission by a larger respiratory particle is possible, if it lands on the eye, for example, but biomechanically, she said, nasal transmission faces obstacles, since nostrils point downward and the physics of particles that large makes it difficult for them to move up the nose. And in lab measurements, people emit far more of the easier-to-inhale aerosols than the droplets, she said, and even the smallest particles can be virus laden, sometimes more so than the larger ones, seemingly because of how and where they are produced in the respiratory tract.

Second, she said, proximity is conducive to transmission of aerosols as well because aerosols are more concentrated near the person emitting them. In a twist of history, modern scientists have been acting like those who equated stinky air with disease [the 19th century miasma theory], by equating close contact, a measure of distance, only with the larger droplets, a mechanism of transmission, without examination.


Tufekci’s questions revolve around why the CDC and WHO, and those who took their guidance from them, were so slow (and remain so) to adjust their world view. I suspect that Michael Lewis’s new book Premonition (now published), which looks at those who realised how bad the problem could get well before others, will point this out: Lewis thinks the CDC simply isn’t set up to do what it seems to, which is to control disease.
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$100 as incentive to get a shot? Experiment suggests it can pay off • The New York Times

Lynn Vavrek:


Reassuring public service announcements about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness have proliferated. But increasingly, people are realizing that it will take more than just information to sway the hesitant.

In recent randomized survey experiments by the UCLA Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, two seemingly strong incentives have emerged.

Roughly a third of the unvaccinated population said a cash payment would make them more likely to get a shot. This suggests that some governors may be on the right track; West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, for example, recently announced the state would give young people $100 bonds if they got an inoculation.

Similarly large increases in willingness to take vaccines emerged for those who were asked about getting a vaccine if doing so meant they wouldn’t need to wear a mask or social-distance in public, compared with a group that was told it would still have to do those things.

The UCLA project, which is still going on, has interviewed more than 75,000 people over the last 10 months.


That’s a big group, so this feels like a robust result. Money turns out to be the most persuasive solution, apparently. Which is understandable – you get the benefit of the vaccine as well, after all. Another point: the gigantic leap in willingness suggests there isn’t really a deep rooted fear of the vaccines. If $100 convinces you (and smaller amounts did too, just fewer people) then you clearly don’t have a principled position.
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“The internals of Apple’s App Review testing” • Thread Reader App

Steve Troughton-Smith is a very experienced Mac (and iOS, I think) developer, and has dug down into the emails and presentations from the Apple-Epic trial to pull out lots of relevant data. For instance: there are more than 900 rules used for app rejection, when apps are rejected the two most common reasons are “information needed” and “exhibit(s) bugs” (making 24% of rejections), watchOS has just 17,551 apps, tvOS has 10,009.

And consider this: two-thirds of new apps submitted to the App Store are rejected. (For updates, it’s about a quarter.)

There’s tons more. It’s a long thread (collated here off Twitter). But worthwhile.
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Clubhouse launches Android app as downloads plummet • Reuters


Live audio app Clubhouse will begin introducing a test version of its app to Google’s Android users in the United States on Sunday, the company said, in a potentially big expansion of its market.

The app, which spiked in popularity early this year after celebrity billionaire Elon Musk and others appeared in audio chats, has sparked copy cats from startups and larger rivals including Facebook and Twitter.

It has been available only to users of Apple devices and by invitation. In some markets such as China, invitations were so sought after some were auctioned on online marketplaces.

But downloads of the app, one measure of popularity, have significantly fallen.

After peaking in February with 9.6 million downloads, that number fell to 2.7 million in March and then 900,000 downloads in April, according to Sensor Tower.

The drop has sparked questions about its long term viability and whether its success was owed in part to people spending more time at home during the pandemic.


That 10-to-1 collapse in downloads suggests to me at least that Clubhouse isn’t going to thrive. If a growing userbase doesn’t lead to a growing number of would-be users, your troubles are just beginning. As people emerge from lockdowns, as everything returns to some semblance of normality, we’ll find out just where not-a-podcast stuff fits in to our lives. Meanwhile, the people at Clubhouse are very positive about everything. Naturally. To me, though, it feels like the wave has passed.
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How China turned a prize-winning iPhone hack against the Uyghurs • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:


In an unexpected statement [in 2017], the billionaire founder and CEO of the Chinese cybersecurity giant Qihoo 360—one of the most important technology firms in China—publicly criticized Chinese citizens who went overseas to take part in hacking competitions [such as Pwn2own].

In an interview with the Chinese news site Sina, Zhou Hongyi said that performing well in such events represented merely an “imaginary” success. Zhou warned that once Chinese hackers show off vulnerabilities at overseas competitions, they can “no longer be used.” Instead, he argued, the hackers and their knowledge should “stay in China” so that they could recognize the true importance and “strategic value” of the software vulnerabilities. 

Beijing agreed. Soon, the Chinese government banned cybersecurity researchers from attending overseas hacking competitions. Just months later, a new competition popped up inside China to take the place of the international contests. The Tianfu Cup, as it was called, offered prizes that added up to over a million dollars. 

The inaugural event was held in November 2018. The $200,000 top prize went to Qihoo 360 researcher Qixun Zhao, who showed off a remarkable chain of exploits that allowed him to easily and reliably take control of even the newest and most up-to-date iPhones. From a starting point within the Safari web browser, he found a weakness in the core of the iPhones operating system, its kernel. The result? A remote attacker could take over any iPhone that visited a web page containing Qixun’s malicious code. It’s the kind of hack that can potentially be sold for millions of dollars on the open market to give criminals or governments the ability to spy on large numbers of people. Qixun named it “Chaos.”

Two months later, in January 2019, Apple issued an update that fixed the flaw. There was little fanfare—just a quick note of thanks to those who discovered it.

But in August of that year, Google published an extraordinary analysis into a hacking campaign it said was “exploiting iPhones en masse.” Researchers dissected five distinct exploit chains they’d spotted “in the wild.” These included the exploit that won Qixun the top prize at Tianfu, which they said had also been discovered by an unnamed “attacker.” 


The attacks were against phones used by Uyghurs (or those in close contact with them), and happened between November 2018 and January 2019. Nationalist hacking. It’s quite a reminder of how China treats its own citizens (hackers and Uyghurs) and views the outside world. (Thanks Chris R for the link.)
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Apple IOS 14.5 privacy changes spark low opt-in rates, falling ad prices • Business Insider

Lara O’Reilly:


About 96% of iOS 14.5 users in the US who have been presented with the privacy pop-ups opted out of ad tracking, according to the mobile-analytics service Flurry’s daily tracker on May 7. Worldwide, that figure was a little lower, at 88%. Social apps have seen the lowest opt-in rates, with utilities, weather, and gaming apps having some of the highest, Ben Holmes, the senior vice president of performance and exchange at the mobile-ad firm AdColony, said during a panel on the Clubhouse app Thursday. (Some users’ settings prevent them from being served the pop-ups at all.)

It’s early days, but ad prices for iPhone users are also dropping, which could reflect a diminished trackable audience, though ad prices can often fluctuate over any given day or week. The location-focused adtech company Blis said the cost to reach 1,000 iOS 14.5 users — CPMs, in ad industry parlance — were 14% lower than the rates to reach users on the earlier version of iOS over the past week. Verve, a fellow location-focused mobile-ad platform, said CPMs [ad prices per thousand viewings] across all versions of iOS had fallen 3% on average between the App Tracking Transparency rollout and May 6.

That’s bad news for developers who monetize their apps through advertising. The mobile-game publisher Tilting Point told Digiday earlier this week it had a 30% drop in CPMs between users with the IDFA and those without.

One of the biggest frustrations advertisers have expressed around the changes is the hampering of their ability to analyze which of their ad campaigns are working. Apple’s privacy-focused measurement solution, SKAdNetwork, lacks many of the real-time reporting bells and whistles that sophisticated mobile marketers are used to.


So it’s beginning to have an effect. Does this mean people will have to spend more money advertising on Facebook in order to get the same effect? Or will they find some other technique? Or give up?
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Google goes nuclear against Roku by adding YouTube TV to the main YouTube app • The Verge

Chris Welch:


A week after their broken-down negotiations spilled into the public, Google and Roku still haven’t been able to reach a deal to renew YouTube TV’s presence on the huge streaming platform. But Google has come up with something of a workaround in the meantime: it’s going to let people access YouTube TV directly from the main YouTube app.

YouTube users will start seeing a “Go to YouTube TV” option in the main YouTube app over the next few days. When they select that, they’ll then be switched over to the standard YouTube TV user experience. This option is coming to Roku devices first — where it’s currently most needed — but will also come to YouTube on other platforms as well.

In essence, Google has basically stuffed the YouTube TV app into YouTube itself, a solution that seems unlikely to make Roku very happy. Google says it’s “still working to come to an agreement with Roku to ensure continued access to YouTube TV for our mutual customers,” and it notes the YouTube TV app remains usable for those who already have it installed.

But in the event that things totally fall apart, Google says it’s “in discussions with other partners to secure free streaming devices in case YouTube TV members face any access issues on Roku.” A Google spokesperson told The Verge that this workaround is only for consumption of YouTube TV; customers cannot sign up for new subscriptions through the YouTube app at this time.

On Friday afternoon, Roku responded to Google’s latest move by calling the company “an unchecked monopolist.”


“…will also come to YouTube on other platforms as well” suggests that Google has been planning to do this for a while, since that isn’t a trivial effort (is it?). More important than whether it leaves Roku happy – though that does count – is whether it leaves customers happy. Also, Google’s missing out on those marginal signups.
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A growing problem of ‘deepfake geography’: how AI falsifies satellite images • UW News

Kim Eckhart:


A fire in Central Park seems to appear as a smoke plume and a line of flames in a satellite image. Colorful lights on Diwali night in India, seen from space, seem to show widespread fireworks activity.

Both images exemplify what a new University of Washington-led study calls “location spoofing.” The photos — created by different people, for different purposes — are fake but look like genuine images of real places. And with the more sophisticated AI technologies available today, researchers warn that such “deepfake geography” could become a growing problem.

So, using satellite photos of three cities and drawing upon methods used to manipulate video and audio files, a team of researchers set out to identify new ways of detecting fake satellite photos, warn of the dangers of falsified geospatial data and call for a system of geographic fact-checking.

“This isn’t just Photoshopping things. It’s making data look uncannily realistic,” said Bo Zhao, assistant professor of geography at the UW and lead author of the study, published on April 21 in the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science. “The techniques are already there. We’re just trying to expose the possibility of using the same techniques, and of the need to develop a coping strategy for it.”


After all, you can create fake humans and animals – why not faked locations?
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The autonomous vehicle world is shrinking — it’s overdue • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:


For years, Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, has been criticizing rosy predictions about our driverless future. She’s consistently warned that the technology is much further away and harder to get right than anyone in the industry cares to admit.

The recent trend in consolidation is vindication for her position, she says.

“It’s kind of like the elephant in the room,” she said of the shrinking of the AV world. “People will mention that and then they’ll stop themselves from making the Socratic connection to what this means about the viability of this industry.”

But Cummings doesn’t think people in the industry will be able to ignore the truth for much longer. “There is an embarrassingly large sum of money that’s been invested in this, so people feel like they have to keep going down that path because surely all these people who invested all this money can’t be wrong,” she says. “Not everyone is delusional,” she added. “Just most people in this business.”

That said, Toyota and Aurora weren’t delusional when they decided to buy the automated driving teams at Lyft and Uber, respectively. They likely saw the value in the code produced by those teams, as well as the talent accrued by the ride-hailing companies over the years. When you can’t hire the people you’d like to staff your own projects, then you have to acquihire them, the distinctive Silicon Valley practice of buying a smaller company for the express purpose of acquiring their team of software engineers. Also, Uber and Lyft were very motivated to sell as recently public companies under pressure to staunch the bleeding and become profitable.

…“The buying up of these companies represents companies being able to buy skill sets that they would not otherwise be able to recruit,” Cummings said. “And I think that’s very valuable.”


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

No getting away from the plugs: preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

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