Start Up No.1643: Lithuania says ditch your Xiami phone, Facebook seeks new PR sheen, Bellingcat’s eye in the sky, gas prices to stay high, and more

Is Apple’s iPhone 13 range a yawn-inducing incremental change, or just what the customer(s) ordered? Can it be both? CC-licensed photo by Mark Mathosian on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Tantalising. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Lithuania urges people to throw away Chinese phones • BBC News


Consumers should throw away their Chinese phones and avoid buying new ones, Lithuania’s Defence Ministry has warned.

A report by its National Cyber Security Centre tested 5G mobiles from Chinese manufacturers. It claimed that one Xiaomi phone had built-in censorship tools while another Huawei model had security flaws.

Huawei said no user data is sent externally and Xiaomi said it does not censor communications.

“Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible,” said Defence Deputy Minister Margiris Abukevicius.

Xiaomi’s flagship Mi 10T 5G phone was found to have software that could detect and censor terms including “Free Tibet”, “Long live Taiwan independence” or “democracy movement”, the report said.

It highlighted more than 449 terms that could be censored by the Xiaomi phone’s system apps, including the default internet browser.

In Europe, this capability had been switched off on these models, but the report argued it could be remotely activated at any time.

“Xiaomi’s devices do not censor communications to or from its users,” a spokeswoman told the BBC. “Xiaomi has never and will never restrict or block any personal behaviours of our smartphone users, such as searching, calling, web browsing or the use of third-party communication software.”


So far the cryptographer Matthew Green hasn’t warned that this is a desperately dangerous system. Sure that he’s just about to get around to it.
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Inside Facebook’s push to defend its image • The New York Times

Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel:


Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, signed off last month on a new initiative code-named Project Amplify.

The effort, which was hatched at an internal meeting in January, had a specific purpose: to use Facebook’s News Feed, the site’s most important digital real estate, to show people positive stories about the social network.

The idea was that pushing pro-Facebook news items — some of them written by the company — would improve its image in the eyes of its users, three people with knowledge of the effort said. But the move was sensitive because Facebook had not previously positioned the News Feed as a place where it burnished its own reputation. Several executives at the meeting were shocked by the proposal, one attendee said.

Project Amplify punctuated a series of decisions that Facebook has made this year to aggressively reshape its image.


A Facebook PR complained (on Twitter) that the puff pieces will feature in a chunk of the News Feed marked “Facebook”. Someone else pointed out that it’s no different from newspapers pushing stories about how wonderful they are. Yet Facebook’s ability to trumpet things – and particularly to downplay others – is a colossal power.
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Google worker unrest rises after removal of Russia voting app • Bloomberg via MSN

Ryan Gallagher and Mark Bergen:


Google employees have joined the slew of politicians and activists blasting the internet giant for pulling a voting app from Russia’s opposition leader, a move critics say showed the company was caving in to the Kremlin. 

Staff members complained over the weekend about the Google’s decision in internal forums and on memegen, a messaging board that has served as a breeding ground for protests within the company. Images circulating inside Google, which were viewed by Bloomberg News, spoofed its corporate creed about prioritizing users. One picture depicts a man reading a magazine below the slogan, “Putin the user first.” 

These internal frustrations are the latest in a series of blows to Alphabet’s Google operations in Russia, where the company is facing increased political pressure, fines and aggressive demands to police its influential internet services. So far, Google has decided those pressures are still worth operating in the multibillion dollar advertising market. 


I’d hazard a guess that there’s similar frustration inside Apple. As Ben Thompson pointed out in a (subscriber, paywalled) article, the problem is (as I said) there being so few choke points that it only takes a little pressure to have a big effect.

Though that also points to the benefit of enabling sideloading so that people can install apps from anywhere in such situations.
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Elizabeth Holmes private text messages leak during Theranos fraud trial • CNBC

Yasmin Khorram:


Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes believed in herself so much that she wrote in a text message to Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani proclaiming that she had “total confidence in myself best business person of the year.”

The message to her then-boyfriend and Theranos president Balwani are among thousands of private texts and Skype messages obtained by CNBC that show Holmes had no lack of confidence in herself and Theranos, the blood-testing company she founded. They also reveal that Holmes told Balwani about courting high-profile investors who ended up giving Theranos hundreds of millions of dollars.

“My new life as of this night and forever more: – total confidence in myself best business person of the year – focus – details excellence – don’t give what anyone thinks – engage employees in meetings by stories and making it about them (ie prepare well),” Holmes texted Balwani in November 2014 while discussing the full moon that evening.

…In March 2015, Holmes texted Balwani: “Mary Meeker trying to convince me to stay private, raise massive $$$ and go and think bigger.”


Going to be interesting to see how her lawyer spins this into her being under Balwani’s thumb.
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Bellingcat can now access specialised satellite imagery. Tell us where we should look • bellingcat


Our team has purchased a subscription to Planet Labs, a private company whose satellites can capture 50cm resolution imagery of anywhere on Earth within a few days of a tasking request. Just a few years ago, satellite imagery of this quality was largely unavailable to the non-profit and independent researchers who play a key role in Bellingcat’s work.

We intend to regularly collect suggestions for where this tasking should be directed, then publish the resulting image for all to access and analyse. To inaugurate this exciting new resource, we’ll soon launch a Twitter poll that will pit our four favorite suggestions against one another; the winning suggestion will be tasked and the image published.

If you would like to suggest a location for satellite tasking, please be as specific as possible and include the following details:

• Direct coordinates of the location (right click the spot on Google Maps to view and copy them).
• Either a screenshot of the desired spot or a direct link to the location on a mapping service, such as Wikimapia or Google Maps.
• An explanation for why Bellingcat should take an image of this site — and why others might find it interesting and useful. Alternatively, a link to a media article can also be provided to demonstrate newsworthiness and relevance.


Amazing. No hint on pricing on the Planet Labs page, which bought the Skybox satellite constellation from Google in 2017; Google’s acquisition for $500m in 2014 seemed like a brilliant move to find out what was happening in the world, but apparently it was too big a mouthful of data even for Google.
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Energy regulator rejects Boris Johnson’s claim of ‘short-term’ gas crisis, with UK in ‘unprecedented territory’ • The Independent

Rob Merrick:


The prime minister raised eyebrows when he rejected warnings of a cost-of-living crisis this winter, insisting “spikes in gas prices” – like food supply problems – will soon be over.

But Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem’s chief executive, refused to echo the prediction, telling MPs. “It’s extremely difficult to predict the future of the gas price.”

He pointed to “unprecedented changes over the last few months” – which had seen the wholesale price leap by almost six times over the last year – warning: “We are in unprecedented territory I’m afraid.” There were “many, many factors” that were outside the UK’s control, such as rising international demand and supply restrictions, an emergency inquiry by the Commons business committee was told.

“It’s very, very hard to predict how long that will last,” Mr Brearley said, warning an end to the supply squeeze was “not something that we at Ofgem would rely on”. But the chief executive played down fears of the UK running out of gas, saying: “You can’t rule anything out, but we have a resilient system that customers can rely on.”

Meanwhile, the boss of the Energy UK industry body revealed it warned the government and Ofgem that the sector was fragile at least two years ago. Chief executive Emma Pinchbeck said she had warned that even well-run suppliers might go bust, because of fault lines in the UK energy market.


Again, it’s businesses that are going to get squeezed by this.
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Asda and Sainsbury’s chilled foods distributor on brink of collapse • Sky News

Mark Kleinman:


A chilled foods distributor whose customers include Asda and J Sainsbury is on the brink of collapse as a maelstrom of headwinds including acute driver shortages threatens further disruption to grocery retailers’ supply chains.

Sky News has learnt that EVCL Chill – a division of the independent logistics group EV Cargo – is close to being placed into administration.

Industry sources said on Tuesday that the business, which employs about 1000 people, was holding talks with its largest customers about contingency plans that would ensure continuity of supply.


Dominoes starting to fall. EVCL Chill went into administration in early 2020 and was bought. The last year for which revenues are available is 2018, when they were £334m – on which it made a £29.1m loss. No reason to think things improved in 2019/2020.
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The most important iPhone ever • Asymco

Horace Dediu:


The new cameras are for the new generation of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok influencers. Ordinary people with extraordinary tools can do extraordinary work.

The latest iPhone 13 is, in my opinion, the most important iPhone ever. It creates the perception of what a phone should be and it sets up the trajectory for demand that did not yet exist. It’s facile to think that the utility of an ok older phone is good enough. That assumes that we are satisfied with ok messaging and ok apps. With ok photos and ok video. With no wide angles, no nightmode and no macro photos. What the iPhone has shown however is that the demand for performance can be nudged up.

We did not ask for rack focus, post-production focus (!), night mode, macro photography and portrait bokeh. But once we have these features we begin, ever so slowly, to use them and then we start demanding them. Conversely it seems that what people mostly ask for—that is what the critics ask for—are extrapolations of existing features. The “faster horse” dilemma.

What makes the iPhone and perhaps Apple special is that it seems to deliver things that nobody asks for but then everybody wants while eschewing overshooting a performance dimension that a few demand but most won’t use.

The tragedy of overservice and disruption is that if you don’t shift the definition of performance eventually you run out of demand at the top of the performance curve. That opens you up to “good enough” competition from below. Instead you need to re-define the notion of performance: compete on a new basis, reset expectations.


As Dediu points out, the iPhone avoids traditional disruption (low-end plain device does good-enough work) by not rushing to add features. Many companies don’t have the patience not to run when they can.

For another perspective, there’s this…
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Apple iPhone 13 review: the most incremental upgrade ever • The New York Times

Brian X Chen:


The truth is that smartphones peaked a few years ago.

After so many advances, the miniature computers have reached incredible speeds, their screens have become bigger and brighter, and their cameras produce images that make amateur photographers look like wizards.

The problem with so much great innovation is that upgrades are now so iterative that it has become difficult to know what to write about them each year. That’s especially the case with Apple’s iPhone 13, which may be the most incremental update ever to the iPhone.

The newest iPhone is just 10% faster than last year’s models. (For context, in 2015, the iPhone 6S was more than 70% faster than its predecessor, the iPhone 6.) Its flashiest new feature, a higher screen “refresh rate” on the $1,000-plus models, makes motion look smoother when opening apps and scrolling through text — hardly a game changer.

Innovations on smartphone cameras also appear to be slowing. Apple executives described the iPhone 13 cameras as “dramatically more powerful” and the iPhone’s “most advanced” ever, largely because they can capture more light and reduce noise. But in my tests, the improvements were marginal.


The “peak” link is to the iPhone 11 – two years ago. (Notice that Apple isn’t using the “S” designation now?) Certainly true that improvement is incremental, rather than dramatic, now: Cinematic Video, better low-light performance, better battery life. We’ve been in tech stasis for some years.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little – or a lot – mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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