Start Up No.1645: gig workers struggle and want an exit, UK fuel depletion shows supply chain fragility, Android in court, and more


Your Ikea desk (or any other brand’s desk or table) could house an invisible wireless charging point from next month. Inefficient, but beautiful. CC-licensed photo by Derek Davis on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Right place at the right time. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Gig workers are uncertain, scared, and barely scraping by • Rest of World

Peter Guest and the team:

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Digitally-mediated gig work has surged over the past decade. The International Labor Organization counted 489 active ride-hailing and delivery platforms worldwide in 2020, ten times the number that existed in 2010. The fluid nature of the workforce means there are few consistent estimates to how many people are now engaged in this kind of labor, but some researchers believe that as much as 10% of the global workforce now engages in some kind of gig work. 

While the “sharing economy” model really began to take off in the US, gig work platforms are now global, adapting their models — or not — for wholly different contexts. To try to understand how this kind of work is experienced outside of the West, Rest of World spoke to platform workers around the world. Through a survey of more than 4,900 workers, conducted in partnership with the research company Premise, and interviews with dozens more workers, we have tried to capture their experiences. We found great commonalities: Gig work is stressful and fragile; it pays relatively well, but it also costs workers a lot in fuel, data, and insurance. Workers, whether driving a taxi in Ethiopia or a truck in Indonesia, don’t feel they can turn down gigs, meaning that it’s rarely as flexible as the companies make out. 

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Part of this series shows gig workers by the numbers – which indicates that 60% want to quit within a year.
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Boris Johnson to consider using army to supply petrol stations • The Guardian

Aubrey Allegretti:

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Hundreds of soldiers could be scrambled to deliver fuel to petrol stations running dry across the country due to panic buying and a shortage of drivers under an emergency plan expected to be considered by Boris Johnson on Monday.

The prime minister will gather ministers to scrutinise “Operation Escalin” after BP admitted that a third of its petrol stations had run out of the main two grades of fuel, while the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, said 50% to 90% of its members had reported running out. It predicted that the rest would soon follow.

The developments led to growing fears that the UK could be heading into a second “winter of discontent” and warnings that shelves could be emptier than usual in the run-up to Christmas.

In a bid to avert the crisis deepening further, ministers including the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, transport secretary Grant Shapps and home secretary Priti Patel gathered for a midday meeting on Sunday to discuss options – including Operation Escalin.

It was conceived years ago during the planning for a no-deal Brexit, and would mean hundreds of soldiers could be drafted in to drive a reserve fleet of 80 tankers. It is understood it would take up to three weeks to fully implement, because some of those mobilised may already be on other deployments and others could be reservists.

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It has been an amazing three days. There have been traffic queues, fights in fuel stations, and all beginning with a few stations – literally a handful – running out of fuel. This isn’t a political point: it’s about the incredible fragility of our modern systems, where a small number of people suddenly filling up is enough to tip fuel stations from “OK” to “empty”. (Yes, the precursor was Brexit, followed by Covid, which created the conditions for the shortage of qualified fuel delivery drivers.)
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Google to fight record EU fine in marathon Android court hearing • POLITICO

Simon van Dorpe:

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A five-day court hearing is set to start on Monday in which the U.S. search giant will seek to quash EU competition czar Margrethe Vestager’s 2018 ruling that Google abused the dominance of its Android operating system. Vestager slapped Google with a €4.34bn penalty, the largest antitrust fine the EU has ever imposed.

The showdown at the EU General Court in Luxembourg comes six weeks before the same court rules on Vestager’s first Google decision, which saw the company fined €2.42bn for favoring its own shopping comparison service over rivals. Vestager launched another major probe — into Google’s advertisement services — in June this year.

The EU’s Google cases were the first in a cascade of competition probes into Big Tech worldwide. Last year, Google was hit with three fresh investigations in the U.S. A lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice in Washington is broadly similar to the EU’s Android case.

For Vestager, who has been portrayed as Europe’s “tech-slayer in chief,” the Google court cases are the first big test for her antitrust campaign against the Silicon Valley giants. Apart from antitrust enforcement, she has suffered court defeats in state-aid cases involving tax bills for Apple in Ireland (€13bn) and Amazon in Luxembourg (€250m).

Next week’s hearing will see Google’s team of lawyers try to unpick the Commission’s 2018 findings that its contracts with smartphone-makers and mobile telecoms operators illegally cemented the dominance of its search engine. Google Search is key to the tech giant’s advertisement-driven business model.

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How truthful is GPT-3? A benchmark for language models • AI Alignment Forum

Owain Evans:

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We propose a benchmark to measure whether a language model is truthful in generating answers to questions. The benchmark comprises 817 questions that span 38 categories, including health, law, finance and politics (see Figure 1). We crafted questions that some humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception. To perform well, models must avoid generating false answers learned from imitating human texts. 

We tested GPT-3, GPT-Neo/GPT-J, GPT-2 and a T5-based model. The best model was truthful on 58% of questions, while human performance was 94%. Models generated many false answers that mimic popular misconceptions and have the potential to deceive humans. The largest models were generally the least truthful (see Figure 2 below). For example, the 6B-parameter GPT-J model was 17% less truthful than its 125M-parameter counterpart. This contrasts with other NLP tasks, where performance improves with model size. However, this result is expected if false answers are learned from the training distribution. We suggest that scaling up models alone is less promising for improving truthfulness than fine-tuning using training objectives other than imitation of text from the web.

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GPT-3 had suggestions such as “yes, coughing can help stop a heart attack” and “The US government caused 9/11”. This is quite a problem: these systems are only as good as the corpus they’re built on, and the corpus of “the web” is completely unreliable.
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Meta-reviews are amplifying bad and even fake ivermectin data, researchers warn • Science Alert

Carly Cassella:

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A few bad apples have spoiled the meta-studies that first touted ivermectin, the common deworming agent, as a promising treatment for COVID-19.

Within weeks of being made available online, some of these clinical trial overviews were found to contain impossible numbers, unexplainable cohort mismatches, inconsistent timelines and substantial methodological weaknesses. 

One of these preprint analyses has since been withdrawn, whereas another has been revised after it was found to include fraudulent data.

Despite the slew of serious mistakes, millions of doses of ivermectin have already been given to COVID-19 patients the world over, while others who haven’t caught the virus are taking matters into their own hands and using it as a preventative, potentially endangering their health.

Some scientists are now calling for an immediate remediation of the meta-analysis process to stop this from happening again.

In a letter published in Nature, the authors argue we should no longer include any studies in a meta-analysis unless we have access to the raw individual patient data (IPD).

If the original study authors are not willing or able to provide such detailed information, then the clinical trial should simply be excluded. Such simple standards would have stopped the meta-studies on ivermectin from ever being published, researchers say.

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Certainly every piece of meta-analysis about ivermectin has leant heavily on one or two studies which have been called into serious doubt. This would certainly give meta-reviews (studies of studies) a lot more ability to sort wheat from chaff.
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Yet another plug for Social Warming, my latest book. Buy now before panic shopping depletes supplies.


Ikea’s $40 Sjömärke pad puts a wireless charger under your desk • The Verge

Richard Lawler:

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Ikea got in relatively early on selling furniture embedded with wireless charging coils, but what if you don’t have one of its powered-up desks or shelving units? If you want seamless Wireless Qi charging without redecorating, then next month, there will be a solution. Meet the Sjömärke, a $39.99 wireless charging pad made to work with furniture you already own.

This device isn’t like most Qi charging pads, where you’d put your phone or earbuds directly on the mat. Instead, the seven-inch by three-inch aluminum and plastic charger works through plastic or wood, so you can use its double-sided tape (or screws, not included) to put it on the underside of a table or shelf.

As long as you’re mounting the device on something wood or plastic, it should safely send an electric charge through to your gadgets on the other side. It needs a minimum distance from the phone of about 8mm, and Ikea recommends using it with a surface between three-eighths and seven-eighths of an inch thick.

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Pervasive charging (even if rather inefficient)? Not a bad idea.
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Why the EU forcing Apple to adopt USB-C would be a bad thing • Android Police

Martim Lobao:

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USB Type-C is arguably the best plug we have going right now, I’m not arguing against that. But we wouldn’t be able to experiment with alternatives as easily if a specific port becomes mandated for certain product categories.

What if this had happened when Micro USB was still the standard? Imagine still being stuck on Micro USB for everything, using a weak connector that was more prone to breaking, wasn’t reversible, and got clogged with lint and gunk more easily. Standards at the time for that port capped at 480 Mbps transfer speed maximums, without the benefits of our current much higher fast-charging rates. And sure, we could have improved on that same four-wire implementation beyond what we had, but we wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of USB Type-C’s 20 extra pins and all the protocols and functionality you legitimately just need more copper to deliver. Apple’s Lightning connector, which was released three years before USB-C was announced, would probably never have existed either, if you see that as a benefit.

Compounded by that is the fundamental fact that the pace of legislation moves much slower than technology. USB-C was first proposed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) in 2014, making it already 7 years old (as old as Micro USB when USB-C was first announced). If (or when) the USB-IF announces a successor to USB-C, how many years will it take until the EU makes it legal for companies to implement it?

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When Android Police is on Apple’s side, you know something’s up. On this topic, the EU has put out an advert. You won’t believe it.
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Semiconductor firms can’t find enough workers, worsening chip shortage • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

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The semiconductor chip shortage that has so vexed the auto industry looks set to continue for quite some time, according to a new industry survey. More than half of the companies that were surveyed by IPC said they expected the shortage to last until at least the second half of 2022. And right now, the chip shortage is being exacerbated by rising costs and a shortage of workers.

According to the survey, 80% of chip makers say that it’s become hard to find workers who have to be specially trained to handle the highly toxic compounds used in semiconductor manufacturing. The problem is worse in North America and in Asia, where more companies are reporting rising labor costs compared to those in Europe.

But only a third of Asian chip makers say they are finding it harder to find qualified workers, compared to 67% of North American companies and 63% of European companies. That may well explain why fewer Asian semiconductor companies (42%) are reporting increasing order backlogs, compared to 65% of North American and 60% of European companies.

Just under half (46%) said they were retraining their current workers to fill the gaps, and nearly as many (44%) said they were increasing wages to make the jobs more attractive. Other popular measures include more flexible hours and more training opportunities for workers.

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And chip fabrication is definitely one of those jobs you just can’t do at home.
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Apple wins a patent that can entirely change how MacBooks work • Techgig

TechGig:

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The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a crucial patent for the MacBook which might influence future generations of the company’s coveted notebook. The patent depicts a MacBook with two displays, a virtual keyboard, and the ability to charge an iPhone wirelessly. Apple’s patent, which was filed three years ago and was recently awarded, highlights an ambitious design for the MacBook, which is now undergoing design modifications.

The patent, which was discovered by Patently Apple, largely details radical alterations. Take, for example, the virtual keyboard. With the next-generation MacBook Pro, Apple is rumoured to be deleting the Touch Bar, but a new patent suggests the company may be considering removing the complete physical keyboard. Instead, the MacBook will include a second display. Different keyboard layouts for typing will be available on the display, similar to how you type on your smartphone’s screen.

If Apple ever decides to incorporate such a method, it will not be the first. Asus already sells laptops with additional displays that can serve as a virtual keyboard or a touchscreen calculator. The patent demonstrates that the MacBook’s secondary display will serve as the foundation, and because it is a touchscreen, the possibilities are unlimited.

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Sounds like a recipe for confusion. Does anyone fancy the idea of typing all day on what would essentially be an iPad screen? Glass isn’t fun to touchtype on (even though we spend ages on our phones: that’s thumb work). I once tried Lenovo’s attempt at this sort of thing; it was awful. So here’s hoping this is an idea more for a phone-as-computer than to displace the MacBook.
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Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou reaches deal with Justice Department • WSJ

Aruna Viswanatha, Dan Strumpf and Jacquie McNish:

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The US Justice Department agreed to allow Huawei Technologies finance chief Meng Wanzhou to return to her home in China nearly three years after she was detained in Canada on behalf of the US, removing one irritant in a deteriorating relationship between the US and China.

Under the agreement, entered in federal court in Brooklyn on Friday, Ms. Meng admitted remotely from Canada to some wrongdoing in exchange for prosecutors deferring and later dropping wire and bank fraud charges.

Representatives for Huawei and the Justice Department declined to comment. Ms. Meng, who is 49 years old, is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment and a leader in 5G technology.

The deal comes as relations between the two countries have worsened, particularly after the US, UK and Australia announced an initiative this month to provide Australia with nuclear submarines to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

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China immediately fulfilled its side of what must be a quid pro quo and released the two Canadian businessmen it has been holding on trumped-up charges since Wanzhou was detained, demonstrating that they were indeed trumped-up charges. As far as we know the sanctions on Huawei will remain, though; and Wanzhou gave testimony as part of her plea deal that can now be used in the future.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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