Start Up No.1558: Google gets US hospital data deal, USB-C adds power, Cummings v the system, WhatsApp sues India, and more


Activist shareholders backed by big pension funds have installed two directors pushing climate activism on Exxon’s board. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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

Google strikes deal with hospital chain to develop healthcare algorithms • WSJ

Melanie Evans:

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Google and national hospital chain HCA Healthcare have struck a deal to develop healthcare algorithms using patient records, the latest foray by a tech giant into the $3 trillion healthcare sector.

HCA, which operates across about 2,000 locations in 21 states, would consolidate and store with Google data from digital health records and internet-connected medical devices under the multiyear agreement. Google and HCA engineers will work to develop algorithms to help improve operating efficiency, monitor patients and guide doctors’ decisions, according to the companies.

“Data are spun off of every patient in real time,” said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, chief medical officer of HCA, which is based in Nashville, Tenn. “Part of what we’re building is a central nervous system to help interpret the various signals.”

The deal expands Google’s reach in healthcare, where the recent shift to digital records has created an explosion of data and a new market for technology giants and startups. Data crunching offers the opportunity to develop new treatments and improve patient safety, but algorithm-development deals between hospitals and tech companies have also raised privacy alarms.

Google has previously reached deals with other prominent US hospital systems, including St. Louis-based Ascension, that granted access to personal patient information, drawing public scrutiny.

…HCA said Google isn’t permitted to use patient-identifiable information under the agreement. Dr. Perlin said HCA patient records would be stripped of identifying information before being shared with Google data scientists and that the hospital system would control access to the data.

…Google will access data when needed with consent from HCA, but the tech giant can develop analytic tools without patient records and allow HCA to test the models independently, said Chris Sakalosky, managing director of healthcare and life sciences at Google Cloud.

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There have been quite a few of these deals, but nothing publicly announced. Power centres, the UK national grid, Moorfields Eye Hospital, and this. Have they ever been successful?
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USB-C is about to go from 100W to 240W, enough to power beefier laptops • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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Soon, the majority of portable PCs won’t need to be equipped with an ugly barrel jack and a proprietary power brick to charge. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) has just announced (via CNET) that it’s more than doubling the amount of power you can send over a USB-C cable to 240 watts, which means you’ll eventually be able to plug in the same kind of multipurpose USB-C cable you currently use on lightweight laptops, tablets, and phones to charge all but the beefiest gaming laptops.

Previously, the USB-C Power Delivery spec tops out at 100 watts, and it’s definitely held the industry back a tad — for example, while my own Dell XPS 15 can technically charge over USB-C, it needs 130W of power to charge and run at full bore simultaneously. Some manufacturers have sold off-spec USB-C adapters (I have a Dell dock that outputs 130W), but they don’t always come bundled with machines and generally have a fixed, non-detachable cable to prevent against misuse.

But with 240W of power — something that the USB-IF is calling “Extended Power Range” or EPR for short — you could theoretically charge an full-fat Alienware m17 gaming laptop over USB-C.

You’ll need new USB-C chargers and cables to take advantage of the new spec, of course, though you should hopefully be able to tell which is which: “All EPR cables shall be visibly identified with EPR cable identification items,” reads part of the USB-IF’s requirements for the new spec.

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Without a doubt this is going to create even more problems as people try to use cables that arne’t suitable. I had a problem earlier this week with a USB-C disk connected by a USB-C cable: the disk had a ton of write errors, wasn’t working properly. I was going to junk it, when I wondered if it might be the (2m, Apple-brand) cable I was using: perhaps it wasn’t up to the job? Swapped for a 10cm cable: happy disk again. USB-C remains a pain.
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Lone wolf Dominic Cummings continues to howl at the system • The Guardian

Martin Kettle:

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There is a backbone of consistency in Cummings’s political career. He has always engaged in a battle against a largely imaginary elite conspiracy to hold back iconoclastic innovators of the kind he sees in the shaving mirror each morning. It takes the form of Cummings’s deep-rooted hostility to institutions – such as the civil service and the BBC – that seem to him to reproduce and strengthen the elite. It is suffused with a lone-wolf purism that enables Cummings to commit idiocies like the Barnard Castle incident and still present himself as a virtuous lone knight in an evil world.

This drove Cummings’s politics, long before the Brexit campaign. The Commons hearing shows it still drives him today, long after the Brexit triumph. When he first stepped across the threshold of the education department as Michael Gove’s adviser, Cummings is said to have promised to set the whole place on fire, such was his contempt towards what he famously dubbed “the blob”. Incineration was a suitably Wagnerian image for Cummings’s sense that it was, and still is, him against the system.

…People like him, by contrast, are holy solitaries rather than team players. Occasionally, his tweets will celebrate an ally who is deemed worthy – one is “a brilliant young neuroscientist I recruited to No 10”, another “a brilliant young woman” whose work averted some of the Covid social care crisis in 2020. Last week he approvingly retweeted that “It’s not only in actual politics that earnestness seems to be a handicap, but also in office politics and academic politics.” People like this, Cummings added, are “seen as mad/unreliable and are weeded out”.

If this makes Cummings in many ways the colleague from hell, it is important to also acknowledge that, in many respects, he was also right, more right than many of those around him, and that he had his supporters, notably the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.

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American papers didn’t pick up on this, but the PM’s chief adviser during (most of) 2019 and 2020 gave an excoriating account of his former boss’s former and current failings. It was also an indictment of the British state, in its civil service form.
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WhatsApp is suing the Indian government to protect people’s privacy • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:

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Messaging service WhatsApp is suing the Indian government in the Delhi High Court, challenging new rules that would force it to break its encryption, potentially revealing the identities of people who had sent and received billions of messages on its platform, a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”

In a statement published on Wednesday morning, India’s IT ministry said it will only require WhatsApp to disclose who sent a message in cases related to the “sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order incitement to an offence relating to rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material.”

It also pointed out that rumors and misinformation spreading over WhatsApp had caused lynchings and riots in the past.

“Any operations being run in India are subject to the law of the land,” the ministry’s statement added. “WhatsApp’s refusal to comply with the [rules] is a clear act of [defiance].”

More than 400 million of the 1.2 billion people who use WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, are from India.

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The continuation of the deadline, which passed on Wednesday morning. It probably won’t take long for the first case where the Indian government wants that disclosure – and it will pick a case where public opinion is on its side.
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Google launches its third major operating system, Fuchsia • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Fuchsia has long been a secretive project. We first saw the OS as a pre-alpha smartphone UI that was ported to Android in 2017. In 2018, we got the OS running natively on a Pixelbook. After that, the Fuchsia team stopped doing its work in the open and stripped all UI work out of the public repository.

There’s no blog post or any fanfare at all to mark Fuchsia’s launch. Google’s I/O conference happened last week, and the company didn’t make a peep about Fuchsia there, either. Really, this ultra-quiet, invisible release is the most “Fuchsia” launch possible.

Fuchsia is something very rare in the world of tech: it’s a built-from-scratch operating system that isn’t based on Linux. Fuchsia uses a microkernel called “Zircon” that Google developed in house. Creating an operating system entirely from scratch and bringing it all the way to production sounds like a difficult task, but Google managed to do exactly that over the past six years. Fuchsia’s primary app-development language is Flutter, a cross-platform UI toolkit from Google. Flutter runs on Android, iOS, and the web, so writing Flutter apps today for existing platforms means you’re also writing Fuchsia apps for tomorrow.

The Nest Hub’s switch to Fuchsia is kind of interesting because of how invisible it should be. It will be the first test of this Fuchsia’s future-facing Flutter app support—the Google smart display interface is written in Flutter, so Google can take the existing interface, rip out all the Google Cast guts underneath, and plop the exact same interface code down on top of Fuchsia. Google watchers have long speculated that this was the plan all along. Rather than having a disruptive OS switch, Google could just get coders to write in Flutter and then it could seamlessly swap out the operating system.

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A suggestion in the comments is that this was done so that it’s completely, utterly clear of any Java/Oracle APIs. Perhaps a defensive move in case Google lost the Supreme Court case. In which case, not needed on voyage, as it turns out.
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Huawei’s HarmonyOS: “Fake it till you make it” meets OS development • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Huawei wants independence from the worldwide smartphone supply chain. While hardware independence is something the company needs to work on, Huawei also needs to get free of Google’s software. So, as many companies have tried to do before it, Huawei hopes to make an Android killer.

The company’s attempt at an in-house OS is called “HarmonyOS” (also known as “HongmengOS” in China). “Version 2” was released in December, bringing “beta” smartphone support to the operating system for the first time. Can Huawei succeed where Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, Symbian, MeeGo, WebOS, and Samsung’s Tizen have all tried and failed?

To hear Huawei tell the story, HarmonyOS is an original in-house creation—a defiant act that will let the company break free of American software influence. Huawei’s OS announcement in 2019 got big, splashy articles in the national media. CNN called HarmonyOS “a rival to Android,” and Richard Yu, the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, told the outlet that HarmonyOS “is completely different from Android and iOS.” Huawei President of Consumer Software Wang Chenglu repeated these claims just last month, saying (through translation), “HarmonyOS is not a copy of Android, nor is it a copy of iOS.”

That makes HarmonyOS sound super interesting. Naturally, we had to take a deep dive.

After getting access to HarmonyOS through a grossly invasive sign-up process, firing up the SDK and emulator, and poring over the developer documents, I can’t come to any other conclusion: HarmonyOS is essentially an Android fork. The way that Huawei describes the OS to the press and in developer documents doesn’t seem to have much to do with what the company is actually shipping.

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But to get that far he had to upload his passport, and wait two days for it to be checked. So he could try being a developer? Huawei has entered a strange hinterland.
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Inner Mongolia reinforces Beijing’s ban on mining with strict rules as more operators prepare to relocate offshore • South China Morning Post

Coco Feng:

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Targeting industrial parks, data centres, telecoms companies, internet firms, and even cybercafes, the draft rules promise to punish bitcoin miners or those providing resources to miners by banning them from the region’s power trading scheme, revoking business licenses, and even shutting their businesses down completely, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the region’s top economic planner.

Under the new rules, which are available for public review until June 1, individuals who flout the regulations could be put on a social credit blacklist barring them from getting loans or making use of the country’s transportation system, as well as facing other legal consequences.

The draft rules mark a sharp escalation in an already surprising change in attitude by the central government towards bitcoin miners and come less than a week after the Inner Mongolia region called on citizens to report illegal bitcoin mines.

Although the creation and trading of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin have been illegal in China since 2017 – a move that forced exchanges like Binance, Huobi and OkEx offshore – authorities have until recently turned a blind eye to the companies and individuals that “mine” bitcoin by operating the computers that make up the cryptocurrency’s decentralised network.

Miners who have taken advantage of cheap, coal-powered electricity in places like Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Inner Mongolia, are finding that this tolerance is fading fast.

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“Coal-powered”? But I was told that bitcoin is all green! Also, this is going to start to squeeze bitcoin if the CCP really does follow through on this. Though as the story notes, it’s had the sword of Damocles hanging up there for four years already. (Iran is also banning bitcoin mining for four months.)
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GameStop announces that it’s working on NFTs • HYPEBEAST

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GameStop on Tuesday quietly announced that it was beginning to build out a team to develop NFTs.

The company teased the new operation through a website dedicated to the blockchain asset. The announcement, titled “Change the Game,” featured a gaming cartridge that slides into a handheld gaming console that resembles a GameBoy. “Power to the players. Power to the creators. Power to the collectors,” a message on the device reads.

Alongside the announcement is a callout for “exceptional engineers (solidity, react, python), designers, gamers, marketers, and community leaders.” The company provided an email for those who wish to be a part of the forthcoming NFT project.

Eagle-eyed Reddit users spotted a GameStop job listing from earlier this month, looking for an analyst with experience in “blockchain, cryptocurrency or non-fungible tokens” to join their Grapevine, Texas, headquarters.

According to Etherscan, the company also appears to have recently created its own GME token.

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Gamestop’s new slogan: if you can’t beat.. actually, what the hell, just join them, it’s a lot quicker.
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Engine No. 1 wins at least 2 Exxon board seats as activist pushes for climate strategy change • CNBC

Pippa Stevens:

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Activist firm Engine No. 1 won at least two board seats at Exxon following a historic battle over the oil giant’s board of directors, signaling investors’ support for greater disclosure from the company as the world shifts away from fossil fuels.

The vote over a third candidate proposed by Engine No. 1 was too close to call as of 3pm on Wall Street.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming the new directors,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods said Wednesday on CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” “I look forward to helping them understand our plans and then hear their insights and perspectives.”

Engine No. 1, which has a 0.02% stake in Exxon, has been targeting the company since December, pushing the oil giant to reconsider its role in a zero-carbon world.

Wednesday’s vote came during Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting, where CEO Darren Woods fielded questions from shareholders ranging from the company’s dividend to Exxon’s investments in carbon capture technology.

…The activist firm nominated four independent director candidates and won support from large pension funds, including CalPERS, calSTRS and New York State Common Retirement Fund.

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The board has 13 directors, so this might make some difference, but not – yet – a critical one. Notice how a tiny stake can have big leverage with the help of activist, er, pension funds.
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Joe Biden opens up California coast to offshore wind • The Verge

Justine Calma:

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Offshore wind is headed west. The Biden administration announced today that it will open up parts of the Pacific coast to commercial-scale offshore renewable energy development for the first time. The geography of the West Coast poses huge technical challenges for wind energy. But rising to meet those challenges is a big opportunity for both President Joe Biden and California Governor Gavin Newsom to meet their clean energy goals.

There are two areas now slotted for development off the coast of Central and Northern California — one at Morro Bay and another near Humboldt County. Together, these areas could generate up to 4.6GW of energy, enough power for 1.6 million homes over the next decade, according to a White House fact sheet.

“I believe that a clean energy future is within our grasp in the United States, but it will take all of us and the best-available science to make it happen,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement today.

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“For the first time”? There’s a lot of ocean out there, and a lot of coastline. Amazing that it has taken this long.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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