Start Up No.1576: Google’s culture under the microscope, TikTok’s beauty problem, does spatial audio squash vocals?, and more


From sitting cross-legged on the ground, can you get up without using your hands? That might predict your lifespan. CC-licensed photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. What sort of riders exactly? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google executives see cracks in their company’s success • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi:

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a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s work force is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.

“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.
“The innovation challenges,” he wrote, “will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down.”

Many of Google’s problems, current and recently departed executives said, stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.

The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.

A Google spokesman said internal surveys about Mr. Pichai’s leadership were positive.

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As I mentioned before, the restiveness within the company is both a symptom and a cause. This is going to be an uncomfortable few years for Google – US antitrust is looming, and it still can’t break out beyond being an advertising company.
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Google’s messaging mess: a timeline • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Here’s a breakdown of Google’s major messaging offerings over the years, with currently active services in bold:

Email: Gmail

Messaging services: Google Talk, Google Plus Huddle, Google Hangouts, Google Allo, Google Chat, plus innumerable chat features built into other Google products we won’t mention here

SMS/RCS services: Google Voice, Android Messages app with RCS chat integration

Video conferencing services: Google Talk, Google Voice, Google Plus Hangouts, Google Duo, Google Meet

Collaboration software: Google Wave, Google Plus circles, Google Docs chat, Google Chat
Within that mess of product names are two core issues: Google’s apparent love of launching new services and its inability to combine products under one umbrella.

Competitors like WhatsApp demonstrate what the opposite approach could be: a chat service tied to a user’s phone number that allows for video and voice, all from one app. Or there’s Apple’s iPhone approach, which ties email addresses and phone numbers to two services: iMessage for text and FaceTime for audio and video.

Google keeps falling into the same cycle, though, one that has repeated itself throughout the years. It’ll build out new services, integrating them into more areas of its product lineup, then try to wipe the slate clean, launch new services that (eventually) replace the old set, and start the cycle anew.

Here are the four eras of Google messaging so far…

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Amazing to have already had four such eras, and it’s no wonder nobody can understand them. If Google had to compete without being able to hang their messaging offerings off Gmail and Android, nobody would use them.
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You may not want to get your beauty tips from TikTok • The New York Times

Jessica Schiffer:

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“I always know when something is trending on TikTok because I’ll have an influx of patients coming in and asking me about the same thing,” said Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist in New York.

Most of the time, that “thing” is a beauty or wellness tip that’s gone viral on the video-sharing platform, without evidence that it actually works. The advice may be ineffective or outright dangerous, from drinking chlorophyll to induce weight loss to using sunscreen only in select areas to “naturally” contour your face.

“We talk about TikTok all the time in my office,” said Dr. Dendy Engelman, a dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon in New York, “and I think it might be worse than other platforms because people are really looking to create content with that wow factor, the thing that will go viral, even if it’s not grounded in science.”

It’s not surprising that the app that brought us the “Benadryl challenge” (taking large doses of the antihistamine to induce hallucinations) and “the Everclear test” (doing shots of the high-proof alcohol) is not a fount of doctor-approved beauty guidance. But many consumers throw reason and caution to the wind when faced with these trends, underscoring a growing subversion of authority in which an influencer’s word is replacing that of experts.
“It’s funny because patients are often so timid in our office about trying treatments,” Dr. Engelman said. “But when they see something done on Instagram from an 18-year-old influencer, they’re like, ‘Sure!’”

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It’s a microcosm of scientists’ experience in the past 18 months. “That wow factor, the thing that will go viral, even if it’s not grounded in science.”
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Spatial Audio • Lefsetz Letter

Bob Lefsetz (who often comes across as one of the grouchiest men in the music business):

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I fired up Apple Music last night on my iPad. There’s Zane Lowe’s dog and pony show linked to above, but there’s also 127 demo tracks, as in Apple is trotting these out to demonstrate the greatness of Spatial Audio. I pulled up ones I was familiar with.

Now I was listening on wired Sennheiser headphones, which retail for about $300, far better than what most punters are listening on, never mind the bass-heavy, distorting of the music Beats, talk about a marketing job.

And the tracks were, as I said, definitely different. Not radically different, but there was more space…

But then I started getting reviews e-mailed to me.

And just now I went back. Now I’m listening via my computer, with $700 Audeze headphones with a separate headphone amp. And what I’ve learned is…the Spatial Audio and stereo versions are not only different, the process affects the punch, the essence of the originals!

I compared Spatial Audio tracks to their HD equivalents on Amazon Music and I found exactly what one writer said: the vocal gets lost. Instead of being up front and in your face, it’s buried more in the mix.

Let’s start with Apple’s demo track, “What’s Going On.” In the stereo mix Marvin Gaye is up front, the band is backing him, in the Spatial Audio version, the band is surrounding him, on the fringe, background vocals popping up way up to the right, Marvin is just an element, not the essence, it’s a cornucopia of music, but it’s not the legendary track, it’s absolutely different, a sacrilege.

Same deal with the Doors’ “Riders On the Storm.” Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”

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Every new audio format is always, always demonstrated using Riders On The Storm. It’s also pretty much always the kiss of death. I wonder how many people will be able to tell the different with spatial audio.
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Towing a Tesla at 70 mph replenishes battery at fast charger rates • Inside EVs

Andrei Nedelea:

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The fact that you can charge an electric vehicle by towing it in gear is common knowledge among those with knowledge of how EVs work – you’re basically just relying on regen to put juice back into the battery, using the motor as a generator. Many have attempted it as more of a gag and more often than not in order to make a YouTube video that will attract a lot of views; this latest attempt is no different.

We’re pretty sure very few people actually charged their EVs in this manner, even when they completely ran out of juice and stopped on the side of the road. Calling a tow truck seems like a safer bet than towing your dead EV behind another vehicle to charge it back up again…

Rich, the guy behind the Warped Perception YouTube channel, known for many crazy perception-warping videos about cars and engines, had his very own Tesla Model S towed behind another vehicle (a Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, no less) at a constant 70 mph and drew several important conclusions.

Firstly, the vehicle did not display any error messages or any warnings that what was being done to it was harmful to the vehicle or unsafe in any way. It looked like it could take many more miles of what it was being subjected to without issue.

Secondly, while towing the Model S at 70 mph, the battery was being replenished at an accelerated rate. He had the car towed for some 25 miles, putting back electricity into the batter at a rate of 65 kW – not quite Supercharger speeds, not even V1 or V2 Superchargers that could muster up to 150 kW, but still pretty decent.

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So… if your electric car runs out of charge, all you need is for the tow truck to tow you quite fast and you’re good again?
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Can the sit-rise test really predict longevity? • The Washington Post

Erin Strout:

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The test requires you to lower yourself to the floor, crisscross style, without bracing yourself with your hands, knees, arms, or sides of your legs. If you can stand back up, again without the aid of those body parts, you’ve scored a perfect 10 (five points for sitting, five points for standing). You lose a point every time you support yourself with a forbidden joint or appendage.

The researchers tested 2,002 adults 51 to 80 years old, and then followed them until a participant died or until the study concluded, which was a median of 6.3 years. In that time, 159 people died — only two of whom had scored a perfect 10. Those who had the lowest score of zero to three points had a risk of death that was five to six times higher than those who scored eight to 10 points.

“It is well known that aerobic fitness is strongly related to survival, but our study also shows that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-body weight ratio and co-ordination are not only good for performing daily activities, but have a favourable influence on life expectancy,” Araújo said in a 2012 news release.

Sure, the test is a good measure of leg and core strength, as well as balance. Older adults who have such muscular strength and flexibility are less likely to fall. And falls are the leading cause of unintentional-injury-related deaths for people ages 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But what if you can’t do it? Are you doomed? Should you plan for an early demise? If so, a test of about a dozen 35 to 40-something friends at a recent dinner party revealed that more than half of us should probably get our affairs in order, pronto.

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I tried this, and apparently I died five years ago. Fine going down, pretty well stuffed coming back up. (Gets better with a bit of practice, but you need flexible hips.)
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Soviets once denied a deadly anthrax lab leak. US scientists backed the story • The New York Times

Anton Troianovski:

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“We all have a common interest in finding out if it was due to a laboratory accident,” Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist, said in an interview this month from Cambridge, Mass., referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “Maybe it was a kind of accident that our present guidelines don’t protect against adequately.”

Dr. Meselson, a biological warfare expert, moved into a spare bedroom in the home of a friend at the C.I.A. in 1980 to study classified intelligence suggesting that the Soviet anthrax outbreak could have been linked to a military facility nearby. Six years later, he wrote that the Soviet explanation of the epidemic’s natural origins was “plausible.” The evidence the Soviets provided was consistent, he said, with the theory that people had been stricken by intestinal anthrax that originated in contaminated bone meal used as animal feed.

Then, in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia acknowledged “our military development was the cause” of the anthrax outbreak.

Dr. Meselson and his wife, the medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin, came to Yekaterinburg with other American experts for a painstaking study. They documented how a northeasterly wind on April 2, 1979, must have scattered as little as a few milligrams of anthrax spores accidentally released from the factory across a narrow zone extending at least 30 miles downwind.

“You can concoct a completely crazy story and make it plausible by the way you design it,” Dr. Meselson said, explaining why the Soviets had succeeded in dispelling suspicions about a lab leak.

In Sverdlovsk, as Yekaterinburg was known in Soviet times, those suspicions appeared as soon as people started falling mysteriously ill, according to interviews this month with residents who remember those days.

Raisa Smirnova, then a 32-year-old worker at a ceramics factory nearby, says she had friends at the mysterious compound who used their special privileges to help her procure otherwise hard-to-find oranges and canned meat. She also heard that there was some sort of secret work on germs being done there, and local rumors would attribute occasional disease outbreaks to the lab.

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So there’s a point that authoritarian states tend to cover up their accidents, and that a plausible story will get backing from all over. This story has been known for ages, of course (it has its own thorough Wikipedia entry, and plenty of past writeups), but we’re now at the stage where anything that seems congruent with malfeasance will grab people’s interest.

Contrast that to the reasonable point I saw made on Twitter by a virologist the other day: given that Covid mostly looks like a cold or flu, might the reason why Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan be that it’s a city, and where they have a lab capable of sequencing novel viruses? Trouble is, that doesn’t involve a conspiracy.
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One-million-litre biological weapon test sphere at Frederick, Maryland • Atlas Obscura

Tony Dunnell:

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Back when it was operational, “The 8-Ball” looked like something the Red Skull would build in a cliff-top Nazi fortress before Captain America came in and smashed it all. Test Sphere 527, as it was also known, was a 40-foot-diameter steel sphere with a one-inch-thick carbon steel hull and a one-million-litre total volume. Total weight: 131 tons.

For most of its operational existence, which stretched from 1951 to 1969, it was enclosed within a 60-foot cube-shaped building sheathed in metal. The sphere itself was gas tight and climate controlled, and the entire complex routinely rated on a slight negative pressure so that any leaks would only allow clean air to enter, rather than allowing contaminated air to escape.

The point of all this was for the aerobiological study of “agents highly pathogenic to man and animals,” including nasty airborne biological weapons. “Hot” biological bombs were detonated inside the sphere, and the pathogen-filled munitions were tested in various ways.

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Which is a totally astonishing thing to do. You’d need to be really, really confident about your one-inch metal sphere. Then they would hook volunteers up to it and get them to breathe the “infected” air. Happily, none died. (Thanks G for the link.)

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Canon uses AI cameras that only let smiling workers inside offices • PetaPixel

Michael Zhang:

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This may sound like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, but Canon has rolled out new AI cameras that use “smile recognition” technology to ensure that only happy employees are allowed into its offices.

Back in 2020, the China-based Canon subsidiary Canon Information Technology introduced an “intelligent IT solution” for corporate offices that includes 5 different functional modules, one of which is “smiley face access control.”

“In addition, based on the corporate culture of ‘moving and always being’, Canon has always advocated the concepts of ‘laughing’ and ‘big health’, and hopes to bring happiness and health to everyone in the post-epidemic era,” Canon wrote in a press release. “Therefore, in the […] intelligent IT solution, a new experience of smile recognition is specially incorporated. It is hoped that smiles can let everyone relax and get healthy, so as to create a more pleasant working atmosphere and improve efficiency.”

In a new report about tech workers in China being subjected to surveillance tech, Nikkei Asia writes that Canon Information Technology has deployed these AI cameras at its Beijing headquarters to only allow smiling employees to enter the offices or book conference rooms.

Some workers, however, are speaking out about the intrusiveness of such technology.

“So now the companies are not only manipulating our time, but also our emotions,” one worker wrote on Weibo (the popular Chinese microblogging service), according to the report.

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I guess it would create a unified working atmosphere where everyone hates the cameras.

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Open for business? The trouble with bringing down mainland China’s coronavirus travel barriers • South China Morning Post

Zhuang Pinghui and Simone McCarthy:

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When the coastal province of Fujian announced at the end of April it would cut the quarantine required for some Taiwanese visitors, authorities hoped the example could test the water.

The idea was to reduce the time in isolation from 14 days to just two as part of a pilot programme, but a week later, the plan was abandoned.

After months without incident, an outbreak of local cases of the coronavirus in Taiwan forced Fujian to put reopening on hold. The about-face highlighted the uncertainty and difficulties for the country as a whole to bring down the border barriers and restart international travel.

China’s great wall against transmission of the coronavirus from overseas had been in place since the early days of the pandemic.

For anybody trying to get into China, there are strict measures, including allowing only business travellers, and requirements for multiple negative Covid-19 tests and mandatory quarantines of between 14 and 21 days. 

The aim is to keep imported cases at bay while authorities press on with a vaccination drive at home to reach herd immunity, the point where enough people are inoculated against the disease that transmission becomes very limited.

A top World Health Organization (WHO) official estimated on Tuesday that at least 80% of the population would have to be vaccinated to significantly lower the chance that an imported coronavirus case could generate new cases or spawn a wider outbreak.

So far, 878.5 million doses have been administered in the country’s mass inoculation drive and China should reach its first phase target of vaccinating 40% of the population, or 560 million people, by June 30.

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It’s easy to have forgotten that China’s still very worried about further Covid outbreaks.
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Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Comes out Thursday.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1576: Google’s culture under the microscope, TikTok’s beauty problem, does spatial audio squash vocals?, and more

  1. Apparently there’s another google chat option missing from the list that is used in the schools a lot: Google Docs.

    They don’t use the chat option built into google docs, they simply invite a bunch of their friends to a doc then start typing. I think it’s because it’s not blocked by the school systems.

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