Start Up No.1627: Google and Apple face app store law, Andreessen on investment (et al), did Covid kill 4.5 million in India?, and more


In the US, QR codes have begun to displace staff in retail outlets. CC-licensed photo by optiscanapp on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Look up, it’s a prime number – the second in just over a week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Google and Apple’s app stores hit by new South Korean law • Financial Times

Song-Jung-a:

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Despite heavy lobbying by the tech giants, South Korea’s national assembly on Tuesday passed what has been dubbed the “anti-Google bill”; it will become law once signed by President Moon Jae-in.

The law bans Google and Apple, as well as other app store operators, from requiring users to pay for apps with their own in-app purchasing systems.

It also bans app stores from delaying approvals from apps or “inappropriately” removing them from their app stores, and from insisting on exclusivity with app developers. If they fail to comply, app stores can be fined up to 3% of their revenue in South Korea.

Apple and Google at present take a commission of up to 30% on sales of digital goods through their app stores, and of in-app purchases, such as subscriptions.

The legislation is likely to be closely examined by other regulators around the world, as concerns grow about the monopolies on app distribution enjoyed by Apple and Google.

Tim Sweeney, chief of Epic Games, which is suing Google and Apple for alleged anti-competitive behaviour, called the law’s passage a “major milestone in the 45-year history of personal computing”.

David Heinemeier Hansson, chief technology officer at Basecamp, called the bill “the first real, big crack in the monopoly app store dam”.

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So this isn’t mandating alternative app stores; it’s saying that Apple and Google have to allow apps (including games) to take payment by methods that circumvent the IAP. Unclear at present: 1) whether that also includes buying directly on the app store 2) how long they have to implement this.

But it does mean that Apple (and Google) can no longer rely on the 30%. If Apple were to lose all of that, and Google stopped paying it for search preference, its profits would come down quite a bit.
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Flying X-Wings into the Death Star: Marc Andreessen on investing and tech • Richard Hanania’s Newsletter

Richard Hanania spoke to Andreessen:

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If you go back thousands of years the thing was the gods, the tribe, the family, whatever cult you were in. If you progress through to the last 2000 years people got super into the big religions, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and so forth. The rise of mass media, they got super into movies, media, and then some fringe political movements and actual cults. People got super into Scientology. But they were kind of these big movements, and a lot of other people were in them. It was never that distinctive or original to be Catholic or something like that. It was a marker of identity but it wasn’t a marker of uniqueness in the way that modern man looks for.

There used to be a term for activities that people would do to pass the time before the internet. The term has almost completely died and the term is “hobby.” People used to have hobbies. When I was a kid it was like “what do you do when you get home from work or school, you have a hobby.” And if you remember what hobbies were when I was a kid, it was like stamp and coin collecting. [laughs] It was like ham radio, wood-working. Maybe there were a few people who were into wood-working or stamp collecting and after the first couple months, it’s like “ok it’s just a bunch of stamps in a book, this is boring, onto the next thing.”

The internet has just killed hobbies. They’re dead, all gone, the concept doesn’t even exist. It’s funny, the concept of having a hobby died at the same time as the concept of “going online” was introduced, which is a phrase you heard constantly from 1994-2005. You would get home at night and you would go online. The big internet company in the 1990s was actually America Online; this was a big deal, Americans could go online. And starting in the mid-2000s Americans stopped going online because we’re now online all the time. The idea of not being online now is a weird thing.

So hobbies died when everybody went online. So what replaced hobbies? And to your point, what replaced hobbies was basically internet movements. The benign way to put it would be internet communities, the somewhat more intense way to put it would be internet cults, right? Now what are people into? They’re not into stamp or coin collecting. They’re into socialism online or MAGA or QAnon, or the Trump Russia conspiracy or bitcoin or Elon…

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There are some bits of this conversation that are sensible, and some bits like this which just sound like someone who hasn’t stepped out of San Francisco’s environs in years.
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Google’s new AI photo upscaling tech is jaw-dropping • PetaPixel

Michael Zhang:

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Photo enhancing in movies and TV shows is often ridiculed for being unbelievable, but research in real photo enhancing is actually creeping more and more into the realm of science fiction. Just take a look at Google’s latest AI photo upscaling tech.

In a post titled “High Fidelity Image Generation Using Diffusion Models” published on the Google AI Blog (and spotted by DPR), Google researchers in the company’s Brain Team share about new breakthroughs they’ve made in image super-resolution.

In image super-resolution, a machine learning model is trained to turn a low-res photo into a detailed high-res photo, and potential applications of this range from restoring old family photos to improving medical imaging.

Google has been exploring a concept called “diffusion models,” which was first proposed in 2015 but which has, up until recently, taken a backseat to a family of deep learning methods called “deep generative models.” The company has found that its results with this new approach beat out existing technologies when humans are asked to judge.

The first approach is called SR3, or Super-Resolution via Repeated Refinement.

«

Google was posting about this in 2017, but seems to have moved things on.

The concern, though, is that when people obscure photos by downscaling in order to protect identities, this technology could be used to un-obscure them. Technology is not good or bad, but neither is it neutral.
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Using household rosters from survey data to estimate all-cause mortality during COVID in India • NBER

Anup Malani and Sabareesh Ramachandran:

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We estimate roughly 4.5 million (95% CI: 2.8M to 6.2M) excess deaths over 16 months during the pandemic in India. While we cannot demonstrate causality between COVID and excess deaths, the pattern of excess deaths is consistent with COVID-associated mortality.

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From the paper:

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The data set is the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Con- sumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS). Its nationally-representative sample includes roughly 174,000 households with roughly 870,000 current members. The survey is conducted on the same households every 4 months, with a representative quarter of the sample surveyed each month. The survey keeps a roster of all current and past household members and provides reasons for attrition, including death. We count these deaths before COVID to estimate a baseline death rate, and dur- ing COVID to calculate excess deaths during the pandemic. An important feature of our data is that it is private and measures death incidentally. This means it is immune to political censorship and is unlikely to have investigator-side bias with respect to death reporting.

«

India has officially reported just under 440,000 deaths. Everyone has been sure the true figure is much, much bigger.
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Johnson & Johnson’s HIV vaccine fails first efficacy trial • Stat News

Matthew Herper:

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An HIV vaccine using the same basic technology as Johnson & Johnson’s Covid shot failed to prevent infection, the company said Tuesday, dealing yet another blow to efforts to create a vaccine against the virus.

The study, called Imbokodo, enrolled 2,600 women in southern Africa who were at very high risk of HIV infection. J&J and its partners, including the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the study in 2017 and announced that all participants had received either a vaccine or a placebo last year. The goal of the vaccine was not to completely prevent infection, but to reduce the chance of infection by half.

“If a vaccine is 50% efficacious it can curb the future of the HIV pandemic,” said Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer and, before that, an HIV researcher. He said that the actual efficacy seen was 25.2%, meaning those that received the vaccine had their odds of becoming infected reduced that much compared to the placebo group 24 months after the first dose. That difference was not statistically significant, indicating that it is possible the result is due to chance.

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Damn.
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Covid trends like ivermectin are deadly distractions. Why can’t we stop them? • NBC News

Dr Ryan Marino:

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Ivermectin has shown antiviral effects at very high doses. However, it has never been proven to effectively treat or prevent viral infections in humans. Like much in vitro data, meaning research done on cell cultures in petri dishes, any positive findings have not been replicated in vivo in actual human subjects. And a quick look at this data suggests a reason why: The doses and concentrations necessary for antiviral activity are much higher than are safe for humans, and would be toxic to human life as well as viruses. If this sounds familiar it’s because the same misapplication of in vitro science has been used to promote hydroxychloroquine and disinfectants like bleach.

Meanwhile, the human data on ivermectin tells a much different story. The available scientific evidence has consistently shown a lack of benefit in both treating and preventing Covid-19, and empiric evidence from widespread off-label use has objectively not made a difference. Notably, the only papers that showed any significant benefit for ivermectin have been retracted because they were fraudulent, but not before being shared hundreds of thousands of times around the world. The same disgraced Surgisphere server — a data sharing and analytics company that rose to prominence early in the pandemic — that posted fraudulent hydroxychloroquine science shared another fraudulent paper on ivermectin that set off this current craze.

That paper and Surgisphere no longer exist, but the damage is done. Another popularly shared study on ivermectin, which claimed to demonstrate better success than almost any other medical intervention in modern history, was also found to be falsified and was retracted. But again, only after being shared extensively online.

The pro-ivermectin crowd would have you believe that the science on ivermectin is being “suppressed.” It is not.

«

Marino is frustrated as hell about the distractions, but doesn’t have any suggestions for how to stop them. I think that’s in common with everyone. There must have been a point in time when the many people who presently declare themselves against being vaccinated must have been undecided. So what changed their minds? Why did they decide that mRNA is “gene therapy” (a complete misunderstanding of gene therapy)?

That’s the research that would be really useful to have.
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Apple cares about privacy, unless you work at Apple • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:

»

Jacob Preston was sitting down with his manager during his first week at Apple when he was told, with little fanfare, that he needed to link his personal Apple ID and work account.

The request struck him as odd. Like anyone who owns an Apple product, Preston’s Apple ID was intimately tied to his personal data — it connected his devices to the company’s various services, including his iCloud backups. How could he be sure his personal messages and documents wouldn’t land on his work laptop? Still, he was too giddy about his new job as a firmware engineer to care. He went ahead and linked the accounts.

Three years later, when Preston handed in his resignation, the choice came back to haunt him. His manager told him to return his work laptop, and — per Apple protocol — said he shouldn’t wipe the computer’s hard drive. His initial worry had come to pass: his personal messages were on this work laptop, as were private documents concerning his taxes and a recent home loan. Preston pushed back, saying some of the files contained highly personal information and there was no reasonable way to make sure they were all removed from the laptop without wiping it completely.

He was told the policy wasn’t negotiable.

Preston’s story is part of a growing tension inside Apple, where some employees say the company isn’t doing enough to protect their personal privacy and, at times, actively seeks to invade it for security reasons. Employees have been asked to install software builds on their phones to test out new features prior to launch — only to find the builds expose their personal messages. Others have found that when testing new products like Apple’s Face ID, images are recorded every time they open their phones. “If they did this to a customer, people would lose their goddamn minds,” says Ashley Gjøvik, a senior engineering program manager.

…The blurring of personal and work accounts has resulted in some unusual situations, including Gjøvik allegedly being forced to hand compromising photos of herself to Apple lawyers when her team became involved in an unrelated legal dispute.

«

Very strange. I suspect it stems from old practices that haven’t been updated. And Apple does let people create new Apple IDs at the point where they join. But most don’t. Related: Apple just banned a pay equity Slack channel but lets fun dogs channel lie complains that the rules on channels inside work aren’t being equally enforced.
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Largest real-world study of COVID-19 vaccine safety published • Medical Xpress

Clalit Research Institute:

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The [Pfizer] vaccine was found to be safe: Out of 25 potential side effects examined, 4 were found to have a strong association with the vaccine.

Myocarditis was found to be associated with the vaccine, but rarely—2.7 excess cases per 100,000 vaccinated individuals. (The myocarditis events observed after vaccination were concentrated in males between 20 and 34.) In contrast, coronavirus infection in unvaccinated individuals was associated with 11 excess cases of myocarditis per 100,000 infected individuals.

Other adverse events moderately associated with vaccination were swelling of the lymph nodes, a mild side effect that is part of a standard immune response to vaccination, with 78 excess cases per 100,000, appendicitis with 5 excess cases per 100,000 (potentially as a result of swelling of lymph nodes around the appendix), and herpes zoster with 16 excess cases per 100,000.

In contrast to the relatively small number of adverse effects associated with the vaccine, high rates of multiple serious adverse events were associated with coronavirus infection among unvaccinated patients, including: Cardiac arrhythmias (a 3.8-fold increase to an increase of 166 cases per 100,000 infected patients), kidney damage (14.8-fold increase; 125 excess cases per 100,000), pericarditis (5.4-fold increase; 11 excess cases per 100,000), pulmonary embolism (12.1-fold increase; 62 excess cases per 100,000), deep vein thrombosis (3.8-fold increase; 43 excess cases per 100,000), myocardial infarction (4.5-fold increase; 25 excess cases per 100,000), and stroke (2.1-fold increase; 14 excess cases per 100,000).

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Be interested to see the Astra Zeneca equivalent. The clotting/low platelet problem has led to some deaths.
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Social Warming: it’s a book.


Surreal photos show the fierce battle against Caldor fire at a Tahoe ski resort • Gizmodo

Brian Kahn:

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The Caldor Fire forced the evacuation of basically the entirety of South Lake Tahoe, a resort community of 22,000, on Monday. Firefighters are waging an all-out battle to keep the fire from reaching the town and wreaking havoc in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Among the tools at their disposal are the snow guns used at the ski resorts that dot the surrounding mountains. On Sunday night, remarkable scenes unfolded at Sierra-at-Tahoe, a resort located along Route 50 and smack in the middle of the Caldor Fire’s path. There, firefighters and the resort stood against the flames.

The resort’s snow guns usually sit idle in summer, waiting for below-freezing temperatures to make artificial snow. The high-pressure water lines used to spray frozen faux precipitation also make them a valuable tool in case of summer fire. “We are prepared to fight the good fight with fire crews + apparatus on-site,” the resort wrote in an Instagram post on Sunday morning.

That included the snow guns, which were used to wet vegetation and structures in hopes of protecting them from the advancing wall of flames.

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The photos truly are surreal: visions of a fiery future, acid-orange and with some weird sci-fi structures.
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QR codes replace service staff as pandemic spurs automation in US • Financial Times

Taylor Nicole Rogers:

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American workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centres have long worried that their employers would find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought that threat to service workers, too. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long done by low-wage staff.

But rather than robots, it is the ubiquitous QR matrix bar codes that are replacing humans.

Many restaurants have begun to experiment with QR codes and order management systems such as Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones instead of with human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores including Circle K are experimenting with the computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to allow customers to make purchases without standing in a checkout line at all.

The shifts mean that some of the 1.7m leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs the US economy has lost since its February 2020 high are unlikely to return.

“With these jobs, there was always some risk of automating but the push was not there,” said Casey Warman, a professor at Dalhousie University who specialises in labour economics. “Covid nudged those jobs.”

Many business owners including Allamano say they are still desperate to hire human workers, but a months-long worker shortage has made them hard to find. Economists say the risk of contracting the Delta coronavirus variant combined with expanded unemployment benefits and closed schools have kept some workers at home.

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The retail sector in the US looked precarious in 2019 (lots of links here about how problematic it was) but this is a dramatic shift. And who’d have guessed it would be QR codes that would do it.
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You won’t believe the clickbaity chaos of Chinese apps • QQ.com

Wang Wenqing:

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In Luo Weiyong’s line of work, success means crafting a 7 a.m. push notification catchy enough that his company’s app is the first thing people open when they wake up in the morning. Or, it means sending messages personalized according to users’ online behavior every 39 minutes — an interval extensive testing proved optimal.

For the companies Luo has worked at, as well as for countless competitors vying to get noticed, time equals money — literally. More user attention translates to higher advertising income. But Chinese apps are finding they need ever more aggressive tactics to achieve their growth goals.

For years, China’s internet industry knew nothing but rapid expansion as millions upon millions of people went online for the first time. But with smartphones now in the hands of just about everyone who wants one, growth has slowed to a crawl. According to business intelligence service provider QuestMobile, the number of active monthly mobile internet users in China reached 1.135 billion in 2019, just 2.3% more than a year earlier. In 2020, this figure fell further to 1.7%.

The only way to increase traffic is to out-compete other apps for users’ time, a battle in which push notifications are the most potent weapon. To wield them most effectively, apps collect and analyze all possible user data, reducing every one of China’s 1.1 billion phone owners to a set of tags that can be used to target them with barrages of tailor-made messages.

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Love the clickbait headline to talk about the clickbait nature of an industry that’s now at the top of the adoption S-curve. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1627: Google and Apple face app store law, Andreessen on investment (et al), did Covid kill 4.5 million in India?, and more

  1. We just had our parent ‘back to school’ meeting (which turned out to be 10, 10! zoom meetings spread over three hours. Not sure I wanted that are all the zoom meetings during the day). Two of the biggest surprises to me was teachers expecting parents to text them via a mobile app (talking points for parents, you enter a class code and it bookmarks all the the teachers and what they teach), and the wide use of QR codes in the zoom presentations so you could bookmark materials and pages for use later. Five years ago I couldn’t get anyone interested in using QR codes in the magazine as they told me no one would use them…..

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