Start Up No.1625: web media’s uniqueness problem, Google’s $15bn gift to Apple, Covid oxygen need hits rocket launches, and more


Why is it everyone but road planners knows that adding lanes won’t reduce traffic jams? CC-licensed photo by formulanone on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Not a prime number. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Making algorithmic dog food for the content factory • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick’s often-daily email had this take on Vice, which has laid off a number of senior staff because it is *checks notes* pivoting to TikTok and YouTube, despite having no real presence there:

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when it comes to digital video, the majority of it is captioned anyways, making the average viral video closer to a blog post full of animated GIFs than a feature film.

The problem is not words, the problem is that digital media, as a business, is broken. The companies that dominate online publishing right now grew from blogs and those blogs became popular because they offered something that people couldn’t get in newspapers or magazines: takes, baby. People, Americans, specifically, have a national compulsion for consuming and dissecting each other’s opinions and blogs filled a void left by the rise of the 1990s Objective Journalism fad.

These blogs, that became websites, that then became digital media companies, though, quickly decided that takes were bad. Around 2012, in a moment of tremendous self-destruction, online publishers, fat with VC [venture capital] money, all started saying “no hot takes.” It’s like that Stephen King story where a whole fishing village goes insane in a snowstorm and walks into the ocean to kill themselves. A whole industry of self-serious bloggers-turned-editors decided that they would no longer do literally the only they were good at and the only thing that their readers actually liked. And now, every 16 months, one of these sites will contort itself into a ridiculous reorg because it has let investors or online platforms or advertisers convince it that it needs to produce every single kind of internet content that exists. In all honesty, why does your website need a Snapchat? Because that’s where people are? OK, well, if you can’t get enough people to visit you from Snapchat, then why does your Snapchat need a website? See how circular and crazy this all this?

But there is also one other piece to all this that I think is actually the real secret to the completely dysfunctional state of online media. Many of these companies like VICE started out with devoted readerships. These websites published distinct content for specific kinds of people to not just share, but also, just, you know, read. But, due to the same forces that pressured these companies into launching Live Facebook studios or whatever in 2017, now most of these outlets no longer actually do anything particularly unique.

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The whole thing is an Alien-blood-cutting take on what’s gone wrong with modern web news media. Except his newsletter and mine, obviously.
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Bernstein says Google’s FY21 payments to Apple might reach nearly $15bn • PED30

Philip Elmer-DeWitt:

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From a note to [analyst] Bernstein clients that landed on my desktop Wednesday:

“We now estimate that Google’s payments to AAPL to be the default search engine on iOS were ~$10B in FY 20, higher than our prior published model estimate of $8B. Recent disclosures in Apple’s public filings as well as a bottom-up analysis of Google’s TAC (traffic acquisition costs) payments each point us to this figure…

“We now forecast that Google’s payments to Apple might be nearly $15B in FY 21, contribute an amazing ~850 bps to Services growth YoY, and amount to ~9% of company gross profits.

“We see two potential risks to GOOG’s payments to AAPL: (1) regulatory risk, which we believe is real, but likely years away; we see a potential 4-5% impact to Apple’s gross profits from an adverse ruling; & (2) that Google chooses to stop paying Apple to be the default search engine altogether, or looks to renegotiate terms and pay less.”

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I have to admit it’s a mystery to me why Google continues to pay this. I can’t think that Microsoft would really pony up anything like that to get Bing made the default. Would Apple change the default to something else? Meantime, this is free money for Apple.
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Mojo Vision crams its contact lens with AR display, processor and wireless tech • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

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A sci-fi vision is coming into focus. [Last week], startup Mojo Vision detailed its progress on a tiny AR display it embeds in contact lenses, providing a digital layer of information superimposed on what you see in the real world.

The Mojo Lens centerpiece is a hexagonal display less than half a millimeter wide, with each greenish pixel just a quarter of the width of a red blood cell. A “femtoprojector” – a tiny magnification system – expands the imagery optically and beams it to a central patch of the retina.

The lenses are ringed with electronics, including a camera that captures the outside world. A computer chip processes the imagery, controls the display and communicates wirelessly to external devices like a phone. A motion tracker that compensates for your eye’s movement. The device is powered by a battery that’s charged wirelessly overnight, like a smartwatch.

“We have got this almost working. It’s very, very close,” said Chief Technology Officer Mike Wiemer, detailing the design at the Hot Chips processor conference. Prototypes have passed toxicology tests, and Mojo expects a fully featured prototype this year.

Mojo’s plan is to leapfrog clunky headwear, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, that have begun incorporating AR. If it succeeds, Mojo Lens could help people with vision problems, for example by outlining letters in text or making curb edges more apparent. The product also could help athletes see how far they’ve biked or how fast their heart is beating without checking other devices.

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“We have got this almost working” has to be one of the all-time technology startup quotes. Theranos: “we have got this pinprick blood test almost working.” Believe it when I see it in the shops. AR contact lenses have been tried a few times before – you can’t have forgotten Microsoft’s, then Google’s, diabetes-monitoring contact lens which came to nothing.

Meanwhile, smartwatches are here, now, and available on a wrist near you if desired.
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Facebook used facial recognition without consent 200,000 times, says South Korea’s data watchdog • The Register

Laura Dobberstein:

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Facebook, Netflix and Google have all received reprimands or fines, and an order to make corrective action, from South Korea’s government data protection watchdog, the Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC).

The PIPC announced a privacy audit last year and has revealed that three companies – Facebook, Netflix and Google – were in violations of laws and had insufficient privacy protection.

Facebook alone was ordered to pay 6.46bn won (US$5.5m) for creating and storing facial recognition templates of 200,000 local users without proper consent between April 2018 and September 2019.

Another 26m won (US$22,000) penalty was issued for illegally collecting social security numbers, not issuing notifications regarding personal information management changes, and other missteps.

Facebook has been ordered to destroy facial information collected without consent or obtain consent, and was prohibited from processing identity numbers without legal basis. It was also ordered to destroy collected data and disclose contents related to foreign migration of personal information.

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Please stop adding more lanes to busy highways—it doesn’t help • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

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[Texas] wants to build more lanes [on interstate 35], which it thinks will ease congestion. At some points, this could leave I-35 as much as 20 lanes wide; this will require bulldozing dozens of businesses along the way. An alternative that would have buried 12 lanes of the highway in two levels of underground tunnels was apparently considered too costly.

But it would be wrong to single out this 8-mile proposal as an outlier. In Houston, the state plans to widen I-45 despite plenty of opposition, including from the Federal Highway Administration. And you don’t have to look far to see other state governments wanting to build new roads to reduce congestion.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to add four more lanes to I-270 and I-495 to funnel commuters into the District of Columbia and its surrounding office parks more quickly. In the Chicago suburbs, an eight-year project to add more lanes to a 22-mile stretch of I-294 began in 2018. And Atlanta might soon be entirely paved over, such is the rate that Georgia plans to add new highway lanes. And these are just three examples of state governments blindly following the trend.

The infuriating bit is that the evidence is pretty clear: these are deeply misguided policies. While it seems intuitive that the solution to three lanes of gridlock is to spread the same number of cars over four lanes, it fails because of a phenomenon called induced demand.

Reducing traffic might make sense if the only variable were the number of road lanes. But it isn’t—as Ray Kinsella was told in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Except this time, “they” refers to more cars. When people know a particular route is congested, some of them will choose not to drive. But once you tell everyone that you’ve added more lanes to that road, that latent demand has an outlet—at which point the traffic jams return, but now with even more cars in them.

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Is there some sort of Laffer curve for motorway lanes? The trouble is that unlike tax rates, traffic conditions are a future condition, liable to chaotic derangement by accidents and so on. You go in the hope the roads will be open and empty, while frequently being disappointed. Having more lanes feels like rolling more dice in the hope of getting sixes.
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Apple promises tiny App Store changes to drop class action case • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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While the Epic case is still ongoing, Apple has worked out a settlement on a class action filed by developers, pledging to make some changes to the App Store model. They are very minor changes, though, which serves as a reminder of how little power developers have in the relationship. 

The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in 219 by two developers who accused Apple of abusing its monopoly over iOS software. Rather than take the case before a judge while also fighting Epic on another front, Apple and the plaintiffs have reached a proposed settlement, which the court can choose to accept or reject. 

According to the filing, Apple has pledged to set up a fund that will make payments to small and medium developers. The total payout will be $100 million, and roughly 67,000 devs will be eligible. Payments could go as high as $30,000 for devs that made over $1 million in calendar years 2015 through 2021. Almost all members of the class would get between $250 and $2,000, though. 

More interestingly, Apple promises it will amend its rules to clarify that developers can offer subscriptions outside the App Store. There have been several instances where Apple suspended or rejected an app based on the developer pushing subscriptions outside of the App Store, which circumvents Apple’s 30% cut. This was never technically against the rules, but Apple will now codify this right in its developer agreement. Apple also says it will ensure that its App Store search will rely on objective signals like downloads, star ratings, text relevance, and user behavior. However, it won’t have to change anything about search for the next three years. 

At the end of the day, these are pretty minor changes. The Coalition for App Fairness, a group backed by Epic, Basecamp, and others, calls the settlement a sham.

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It’s no concession at all, though Mark Gurman at Bloomberg insists that Apple must have settled because it knew it was in the wrong. Allowing developers to mention in email that you can sign up by non-App Store methods is pretty daft. How is that helpful?
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There had to be a link to my book Social Warming, didn’t there?


Microsoft won’t stop you installing Windows 11 on older PCs • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft is announcing today that it won’t block people from installing Windows 11 on most older PCs. While the software maker has recommended hardware requirements for Windows 11 — which it’s largely sticking to — a restriction to install the OS will only be enforced when you try to upgrade from Windows 10 to Windows 11 through Windows Update. This means anyone with a PC with an older CPU that doesn’t officially pass the upgrade test can still go ahead and download an ISO file of Windows 11 and install the OS manually.

Microsoft announced its Windows 11 minimum hardware requirements in June, and made it clear that only Intel 8th Gen and beyond CPUs were officially supported. Microsoft now tells us that this install workaround is designed primarily for businesses to evaluate Windows 11, and that people can upgrade at their own risk as the company can’t guarantee driver compatibility and overall system reliability. Microsoft won’t be recommending or advertising this method of installing Windows 11 to consumers. In fact, after we published this post, Microsoft reached out to tell us about one potentially gigantic catch it didn’t mention during our briefing: systems that are upgraded this way may not be entitled to get Windows Updates, even security ones. We’re asking Microsoft for clarification.

Overall, it’s a big change that means millions of PCs may not be left behind, technically. Consumers will still need to go to the effort of downloading an ISO file and manually installing Windows 11, which the vast majority probably won’t do.

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So you can upgrade manually, but might not even get security updates? That’s pretty rough. Can’t see that as a policy with any legs.
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Man robbed of 16.4 bitcoin in 2018 sues young thieves’ parents • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

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One of the defendants —Hazel D. Wells — just filed a motion with the court to represent herself and her son in lieu of hiring an attorney. In a filing on Aug. 9, Wells …volunteered that her son had been questioned by U.K. authorities in connection with the bitcoin theft.

Neither of the defendants’ families are disputing the basic claim that their kids stole from Mr. Schober. Rather, they’re asserting that time has run out on Schober’s legal ability to claim a cause of action against them.

“Plaintiff alleges two common law causes of action (conversion and trespass to chattel), for which a three-year statute of limitations applies,” an attorney for the defendants argued in a filing on Aug. 6 (PDF). “Plaintiff further alleges a federal statutory cause of action, for which a two-year statute of limitations applies. Because plaintiff did not file his lawsuit until May 21, 2021, three years and five months after his injury, his claims should be dismissed.”

Schober’s attorneys argue (PDF) that “the statute of limitations begins to run when the Plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the existence and cause of the injury which is the base of his action,” and that inherent in this concept is the discovery rule, namely: That the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of both the existence and cause of his injury.

The plaintiffs point out that Schober’s investigators didn’t pinpoint one of the young men’s involvement until more than a year after they’d identified his co-conspirator, saying Schober notified the second boy’s parents in December 2019.

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In 2018, the 16.4 bitcoin were worth £145,800. Presently, £587,400 or so.
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EU set to launch formal probe into Nvidia’s $54bn takeover of Arm • Ars Technica

Javier Espinoza and Kate Beioley:

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Brussels is set to launch a formal competition probe early next month into Nvidia’s planned $54bn takeover of British chip designer Arm, after months of informal discussions between regulators and the US chip company.

The investigation is likely to begin after Nvidia officially notifies the European Commission of its plan to acquire Arm, with the US chipmaker planning to make its submission in the week starting September 6, according to two people with direct knowledge of the process. They added that the date might yet change, however.

Brussels’ investigation would come after the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority said its initial assessment of the deal suggested there were “serious competition concerns” and that a set of remedies suggested by Nvidia would not be sufficient to address them.

The UK watchdog said it feared the deal could “stifle innovation across a number of markets” including by giving Nvidia the power to hurt its rivals by limiting their access to Arm’s technology.

Nvidia announced a plan in September last year to buy the UK chip designer from SoftBank, the Japanese investment conglomerate.

But rival chip companies have raised objections to the deal, noting that Arm’s chip designs were widely licensed through the chip industry and that Nvidia would have the power to restrict rivals from using Arm technology, something the US company has denied it would do.

The CMA recommended an in-depth investigation into the deal, but the UK may also decide to block the takeover on national security grounds.

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Once the UK and EC get onto this, it’s hard not to think that the US will join in too.
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SpaceX says liquid oxygen shortage due to COVID-19 delaying rocket launch • Science Times

Aubrey Clarke:

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SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell warned earlier this week that liquid oxygen issues were making it even challenging to launch rockets and that anybody with extra should email her.

Most launch providers, heavy industries, and municipal water systems rely on liquid oxygen (LOX), Click Orlando said. Rockets like United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 combine supercooled oxygen with rocket-grade fuel to create the power required for liftoff.

LOX is also needed in hospitals to treat COVID-19-infected patients and for water purification, and supplies are running limited. Space News said the city of Orlando requested people to reduce their water consumption on Friday so that more liquid oxygen might be diverted to hospitals.

In a video uploaded to YouTube by ExpovistaTV (which was later deleted), Shotwell stated at a Space Symposium panel that SpaceX’s launches would be hampered this year due to a scarcity of liquid oxygen. Without going into detail, she said that SpaceX would ensure hospitals get the liquid oxygen they require.

…Shotwell, who also serves as SpaceX’s chief operations officer, reportedly stated that a worldwide microprocessor shortage had caused new workstations for the company’s Starlink satellite internet project to be delayed.

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SpaceX uses liquid oxygen to create thrust in its Merlin engines fuelled by kerosene. Perhaps not a bad thing that it’s delayed? By a pandemic?
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Confirming the pedigree of uranium cubes from Nazi Germany’s failed nuclear program • American Chemical Society

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In the early 1940s, several German scientists were competing to exploit nuclear fission to produce plutonium from uranium for the war. The teams included Werner Heisenberg’s group in Berlin (later moved to Haigerloch to try to avoid Allied troops) and Kurt Diebner’s team at Gottow. Uranium cubes were produced to fuel nuclear reactors at these sites. Measuring about 2 inches on each side, hundreds of the cubes were hung on cables submerged in “heavy” water, in which deuterium replaces lighter hydrogen. The scientists hoped radioactive decay of the uranium in the assemblies would unleash a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction—but the design failed.

U.S. and British forces seized some of the Heisenberg uranium cubes at Haigerloch in 1945, and more than 600 of these cubes were shipped to the U.S. Some may have been used in the U.S. nuclear weapons effort—which was launched in part due to fears that Germany was developing nuclear weapons—and a few belong to collectors and sites including PNNL. The whereabouts of the others, including hundreds of Diebner cubes, are unknown.

PNNL uses its sample to help train international border guards and nuclear forensics researchers to detect nuclear material. It’s labeled as a Heisenberg cube, but support for that assertion is anecdotal, says Brittany Robertson, who is presenting the work at ACS Fall 2021. “We didn’t have any actual measurements to back up that claim,” says Robertson, a doctoral student who works at the lab. To prove the cube’s origins, she began modifying some analytical techniques to combine with Schwantes’ established forensic methods. Robertson turned to radiochronometry, the nuclear field’s version of a technique that geologists use to determine the age of samples based on radioactive isotope content.

…While the scientists are intrigued about working with material from the dawn of the nuclear age, these objects are undeniably linked to a horrific time in history. “I’m glad the Nazi program wasn’t as advanced as they wanted it to be by the end of the war,” Robertson says, “because otherwise, the world would be a very different place.”

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Well, yes.
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11-year-old drummer Nandi Bushell got to jam on stage with Foo Fighters • Boing Boing

Rusty Blazenhoff:

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Here’s a feel-good story for you. Dave Grohl’s “arch nemesis,” 11-year-old Nandi Bushell, finally got her chance to jam live with the Foo Fighters. Grohl and the musical prodigy have been going back and forth online in drum battles but it’s been her dream to play on stage with the band. At their sold-out show Thursday night at The Forum in Los Angeles, Grohl announced her surprise appearance and the crowd went wild. And she started the set like every pro drummer does—by spinning a drumstick in the air. She and the band then brought the house down with “Everlong.”

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Last week we lost Charlie Watts. This week, see someone who could be part of the future. (Bear in mind that professional musicians do not under any circumstances let rank amateurs onstage to play with them. If you’re up there, you’re really, really good.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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