Start Up No.1555: Apple v advertising, DeepMind seeks independence, link rot worsens, finding benefit in Bitcoin, and more


Here’s a theory – what if Apple didn’t replace its maddening remote because it made too many in the first place? CC-licensed photo by pablofalv on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t lose them in the couch cushions. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Can Apple change ads? • Benedict Evans

After pointing out that Apple moved from dominating music, to dominating phones, to dominating App Store revenue, and found itself stymied at each turn:

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the obvious, cynical theory is that Apple decided to cripple third-party app install ads just at the point that it was poised to launch its own, and to weaken the broader smartphone ad model so that companies would be driven towards in-app purchase instead. (The even more cynical theory would be that Apple expects to lose a big chunk of App Store commission as a result of lawsuits and so plans to replace this with app install ads. I don’t actually believe this – amongst other things I think Apple believes it will win its Epic and Spotify cases.)

Much more interesting, though, is what happens if Apple opens up its cohort tracking and targeting, and says that apps, or Safari, can now serve anonymous, targeted, private ads without the publisher or developer knowing the targeting data. It could create an API to serve those ads in Safari and in apps, without the publisher knowing what the cohort was or even without knowing what the ad was. What if Apple offered that, and described it as a truly ‘private, personalised’ ad model, on a platform with at least 60% of US mobile traffic, and over a billion global users?

…The ad market is a mess, and now very unstable, and poised, perhaps, to move to a very different idea of what ‘privacy’ means and how it works. Apple has both the market power and the brand to launch a new privacy-based tracking and targeting ad model, and offer it on hundreds of millions of high-spending users’ devices.

On the other hand, this may be a case of what my old colleague Steven Sinofsky likes to call the ‘Dr Evil’ theory of company strategy. The press used to see five or ten things going on in different parts of Microsoft, imagine they were all linked together, and say “Aha! We have worked out their evil brilliant plan for world domination!” – and people at Microsoft would read the story and say “That’s a good idea! We should do that! – except we could never make it work.”

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Forecasting s-curves is hard • Constance Crozier

Crozier is a researcher at the University of Colorado’s engineering group:

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the reason that these curves have been back in the news, is the propagation of disease. In this case the exponential growth occurs when the virus is new, such that most people encountering it will not have developed immunity. The level-off occurs because the virus is no longer encountering people without immunity (either due to ‘herd immunity’ or isolation of those infected). The graph below shows the number of deaths in China from the SARS outbreak in 2003, again with a best-fit s-curve.

Deaths due to SARS in China [3]
S-curves have only three parameters, and so it is perhaps impressive that they fit a variety of systems so well. Broadly, the three parameters describe the initial growth rate, the level-off rate, and the value at which it levels-off. Therefore, if you can estimate these three numbers, then you have the trend curve. Many of us will have learnt in school that if there are three parameters to be found, you need three data points to define the function. This would suggest that you could perfectly predict the level-off point based on only three observations (spoiler: you can’t). 

In reality, while we can say that the overall trend of the data is likely to fit to some s-curve, the individual points will not all lie along it.

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There’s a lovely animation in the post which shows how difficult it is to fit an s-curve to the available data: is it going to be huge, tiny, quick, slow?
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Google unit DeepMind tried—and failed—to win AI autonomy from parent • WSJ

Parmy Olson:

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Senior managers at Google artificial-intelligence unit DeepMind have been negotiating for years with the parent company for more autonomy, seeking an independent legal structure for the sensitive research they do.

DeepMind told staff late last month that Google called off those talks, according to people familiar with the matter. The end of the long-running negotiations, which hasn’t previously been reported, is the latest example of how Google and other tech giants are trying to strengthen their control over the study and advancement of artificial intelligence. Earlier this month, Google unveiled plans to double the size of its team studying the ethics of artificial intelligence and to consolidate that research.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has called the technology key to the company’s future, and parent Alphabet has invested billions of dollars in AI. The technology, which handles tasks once the exclusive domain of humans, making life more efficient at home and work, has raised complex questions about the growing influence of computer algorithms in a wide range of public and private life.

…DeepMind’s founders had sought, among other ideas, a legal structure used by nonprofit groups, reasoning that the powerful artificial intelligence they were researching shouldn’t be controlled by a single corporate entity, according to people familiar with those plans.

On a video call last month with DeepMind staff, co-founder Demis Hassabis said the unit’s effort to negotiate a more autonomous corporate structure was over, according to people familiar with the matter. He also said DeepMind’s AI research and its application would be reviewed by an ethics board staffed mostly by senior Google executives.

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Feels like this only begins to capture the tension that must exist between the parent and subsidiary. The firings in Google’s AI ethics unit can’t have made them comfortable either.
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Once tech’s favorite economist, now a thorn in its side • The New York Times

Steve Lohr:

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Paul Romer was once Silicon Valley’s favorite economist. The theory that helped him win a Nobel prize — that ideas are the turbocharged fuel of the modern economy — resonated deeply in the global capital of wealth-generating ideas. In the 1990s, Wired magazine called him “an economist for the technological age.” The Wall Street Journal said the tech industry treated him “like a rock star.”

Not anymore.

Today, Mr. Romer, 65, remains a believer in science and technology as engines of progress. But he has also become a fierce critic of the tech industry’s largest companies, saying that they stifle the flow of new ideas. He has championed new state taxes on the digital ads sold by companies like Facebook and Google, an idea that Maryland adopted this year.

And he is hard on economists, including himself, for long supplying the intellectual cover for hands-off policies and court rulings that have led to what he calls the “collapse of competition” in tech and other industries.

“Economists taught, ‘It’s the market. There’s nothing we can do,’” Mr. Romer said. “That’s really just so wrong.”

Mr. Romer’s current call for government activism, he said, reflects “a profound change in my thinking” in recent years. It also fits into a broader re-evaluation about the tech industry and government regulation among prominent economists.

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It sounds like neoliberalism is dying an inch at a time. Only a few miles to go. The idea of local taxing on ads seems like an obvious one; the surprise is that it’s not there. And the attitude to advertising is shifting subtly.
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Belarus accused of ‘hijacking’ Ryanair flight diverted to arrest blogger • The Guardian

Andrew Roth:

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Belarus has been accused of hijacking a European jetliner and engaging in an act of state terrorism when it forced a Ryanair flight to perform an emergency landing in Minsk after a bomb threat and arrested an opposition blogger critical of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich, a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police after his flight was diverted to Minsk national airport. Minsk confirmed that Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to escort the plane.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said the plane had been “hijacked” and accused Lukashenko of a “reprehensible act of state terrorism”. He said he would demand new sanctions against Belarus at a European Council meeting scheduled for Monday.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said: “If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out.”

“We are coordinating with our allies,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary. “This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”

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By the time you read this there will doubtless be a lot more happening. I do hope this isn’t like the time when I linked to an article in The Guardian in late January 2020 about a strange new disease in China.
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After the storm • Hey World

David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder at Basecamp, where a third of the staff resigned at the end of a torrid week over the company’s policies about “discussing politics” (subsequently traced at its roots to a single longserving executive who posted lots of Breitbart links in the company Slack):

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It’s been three weeks since Jason and I announced the set of workplace policy changes that led to a public firestorm and a really difficult, stressful time for everyone at Basecamp.

Since then, we’ve been regrouping, hiring new colleagues, and continued operating our services without a hitch. We have a great team in place, and everyone has been helping out wherever needed.

We’ve also kept a watchful eye on the business. While there was a small uptick in cancelations for HEY during the first tumultuous week, they were more than offset by an increase in new customer signups for Basecamp. And now both products are growing like they were before that difficult week.

When you’re in the midst of a storm like we were, it’s easy to temporarily lose hope. To feel like it’ll never pass. But it usually does, and so it did at Basecamp.

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You rarely see the followup to these media storms, which is why this is useful to see. The open question, which we won’t know for months, is how all that affected the product.
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What the ephemerality of the Web means for your hyperlinks • Columbia Journalism Review

John Bowers, Clare Stanton and Jonathan Zittrain:

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Our team of researchers at Harvard Law School has undertaken a project to gain insight into the extent and characteristics of journalistic linkrot and content drift. We examined hyperlinks in New York Times articles, starting with the launch of the Times website in 1996 up through mid-2019, developed on the basis of a data set provided to us by the Times. The substantial linkrot and content drift we found here reflect the inherent difficulties of long-term linking to pieces of a volatile Web. The Times in particular is a well-resourced standard-bearer for digital journalism, with a robust institutional archiving structure. Their interest in facing the challenge of linkrot indicates that it has yet to be understood or comprehensively addressed across the field.

The data set of links on which we built our analysis was assembled by Times software engineers who extracted URLs embedded in archival articles and packaged them with basic article metadata such as section and publication date. We measured linkrot by writing a script to visit each of the unique “deep” URLs in the data set and log HTTP response codes, redirects, and server timeouts. On the basis of this analysis, we labeled each link as being “rotted” (removed or unreachable) or “intact” (returning a valid page).

We found that of the 553,693 articles within the purview of our study––meaning they included URLs on nytimes.com––there were a total of 2,283,445 hyperlinks pointing to content outside of nytimes.com. Seventy-two% of those were “deep links” with a path to a specific page, such as example.com/article, which is where we focused our analysis (as opposed to simply example.com, which composed the rest of the data set).

Of these deep links, 25% of all links were completely inaccessible. Linkrot became more common over time: 6% of links from 2018 had rotted, as compared to 43% of links from 2008 and 72% of links from 1998. 53% of all articles that contained deep links had at least one rotted link. 

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Check your financial privilege • Bitcoin Magazine

Alex Gladstein:

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While Western headlines focus on Coinbase going public, Tesla buying billions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin and tech bros getting fabulously rich, there is a quiet revolution happening worldwide. Until now, governments and corporations have controlled the rules of money. That is changing.

To learn more, the author spoke to Bitcoin users in Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia, three countries with a combined population of 366 million, well in excess of the number of individuals living in the United States.

The three speak for millions whose lived experience is much closer to that of the average person on this planet. Gates, Munger and Buffett may not have recently dealt with conflict and violence, black markets, relentless inflation, political repression, and rampant corruption in their daily routine, but most do.

And yet, these Bitcoiners are more hopeful for the future than the doomers listed above. For them, Bitcoin is a protest, a lifeline and a way out.

Here are their stories.

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This has individuals’ stories from Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia. They’re definitely interesting; yet the visible weakness of each of their positions is that their governments could, and to some extent already do, shut down much of the trading. And they see bitcoin (mostly; though they use other coins too) as a currency, not a speculative asset in the way its boosters in the west seem to.
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Apple VP talks Apple TV 4K living room takeover, gaming and the future of the streaming platform • Mobile Syrup

Patrick O’Rourke interviews Tim Twerdahl, Apple’s vp of product marketing for home and audio:

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Q: Was there ever any thought to adding some sort of U1 AirTag-like technology in the 2nd-gen Siri Remote? I’m always losing the remote in my couch cushions and it seems like it would be a great idea. Did Apple not bother because the ‘Find My’ network is more designed for use outside of the home?

Twerdahl: We are super excited about AirTags and what we’re doing with U1, and part of that power is the Find My network and the fact that we can leverage a billion devices around the world to help you find stuff.

To your point, that is the most powerful out of the home. With the changes we’ve made to the Siri Remote — including making it a bit thicker so it won’t fall in your couch cushions as much — that need to have all these other network devices find it seems a little bit lower.

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I suspect that Apple has had this “new” remote in-house for years. But something or someone was blocking it being released. It’s so much more usable than what went before. Is it possible that, like the HomePod, Apple drastically overestimated demand for the Apple TV, made a ton of the dire remotes, and was left with surplus stock it refused to junk and waited to sell off?
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About lossless audio in Apple Music • Apple Support

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What you need to know about lossless in Apple Music

• Streaming lossless audio over a cellular or Wi-Fi network consumes significantly more data. And downloading lossless audio uses significantly more space on your device. Higher resolutions use more data than lower ones.
• AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and Beats wireless headphones use Apple AAC Bluetooth Codec to ensure excellent audio quality. However, Bluetooth connections aren’t lossless.
• To get a lossless version of music that you already downloaded from Apple Music, just delete the music and redownload it from the Apple Music catalog.

Can I listen to lossless audio on my HomePod or HomePod mini?

• HomePod and HomePod mini currently use AAC to ensure excellent audio quality. Support for lossless is coming in a future software update.

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Totally, utterly pointless, especially on the Homepod mini, which has sound quality concomitant with its orange-sized volume to begin with. Lossless takes about 10 times more data, and you won’t be able to hear the difference.

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It’s Monday (somewhere): why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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