Start Up No.1658: Amazon faces copying claim, AirPods for health?, the Facebook-using teens, Cpt Kirk opines on space, Big Bang mystery, and more


The air around Everest is so thin that most humans need artificial oxygen when climbing it. But birds can fly over it. How? CC-licensed photo by Ryan on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Amazon copied products and rigged search results, documents show • Reuters

Aditya Kalra and Steve Stecklow:

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off products it sells on its website and of exploiting its vast trove of internal data to promote its own merchandise at the expense of other sellers. The company has denied the accusations.

But thousands of pages of internal Amazon documents examined by Reuters – including emails, strategy papers and business plans – show the company ran a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating search results to boost its own product lines in India, one of the company’s largest growth markets.

The documents reveal how Amazon’s private-brands team in India secretly exploited internal data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies, and then offered them on its platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three … search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.

Among the victims of the strategy: a popular shirt brand in India, John Miller, which is owned by a company whose chief executive is Kishore Biyani, known as the country’s “retail king.” Amazon decided to “follow the measurements of” John Miller shirts down to the neck circumference and sleeve length, the document states.

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Benedict Evans repeatedly argues that this is no different from Walmart or Costco which also monitor their customers’ purchases and produce things under their own label to sell in competition. It’s pretty hard to see that shirt sizing has any copyright, for instance. The search results? Same as where you stack things on the shelves – for which, in stores, companies pay thousands.
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Apple studying potential of AirPods as health device • WSJ

Rolfe Winkler:

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Apple is studying ways to make AirPods into a health device, including for enhancing hearing, reading body temperature and monitoring posture, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the plans.

The plans further demonstrate Apple’s ambition to add health and wellness features to devices beyond the Apple Watch, where most of the company’s health functions exist today. Apple is also working on technology that aims to use iPhones to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline, the Journal reported last month.

It isn’t clear if Apple is developing specific new hearing-aid features for AirPods or wants to market the earbuds’ existing hearing-improvement features as hearing aids. AirPods Pro, Apple’s higher-end earbuds, already offer features to improve hearing, including “conversation boost,” launched last week, that increases the volume and clarity of people in front of the wearer.

The proposed AirPods features aren’t expected by next year and might never be rolled out to consumers or the timing could change, cautioned people familiar with the company’s plans.

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Strange how the WSJ has “reviewed documents” and yet there’s no clarity about when this will happen. Those sound like prototype schematics, don’t they?
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The men who failed Britain • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

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I have a distinct memory of watching the first of the pandemic press conferences; the first time Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson stood up behind those podiums in the wood-lined room and told us what was going to happen. It was March 3, 2020. They unveiled the “flatten the curve” plan — to slow rather than stop the virus’s spread, so that we would slowly build up population immunity while preventing the NHS being overwhelmed.

It seemed reassuring. I know this because I messaged something like “It seems like they might know what they’re doing!”  in a science-nerdy chat group that I’m part of. But my optimism was not echoed. “It seems like they’ve just killed all our grannies,” responded someone.

I recall this to make two points. Firstly, I can’t claim any sort of foresight. I didn’t see then, though perhaps I should have done, that the early response of the British government to Covid was disastrous and wrongheaded. Instead, I was falsely reassured by the confidence of the scientific advisers, Whitty and Vallance. 

But secondly, other people did see it. The failings were predicted. And not just by my friend: a large number of smart, numerate generalists outperformed public health experts repeatedly in predicting the course of the pandemic in those early months.

On Monday night, two House of Commons select committees released the findings of their report into England’s Covid response. The headlines yesterday were stark: the “worst public health failure ever”, “big mistakes”, “damning”. 

The individual mistakes — failure to protect care homes; failure to move quickly enough on lockdowns; failure to build testing infrastructure and more — are certainly worthy of criticism. But having read the report, I want to talk about what strikes me as the overarching theme: being too bloody clever by half.

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Chivers is an absolutely terrific science writer. For my part, I agree: I didn’t see it coming, even while other people utterly did.
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Do teens use Facebook? It depends on their family’s income • Quartz

Hanna Kozlowska:

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When Pew last surveyed teenagers—three years ago—lower-income kids reported that they used Instagram and Snapchat much less than they currently do. It’s easy to speculate why: Instagram was still known as the platform where seemingly rich kids show off their private jets and exotic vacations, and Snapchat used up a lot of data. Both were apps created for smartphones, which were less ubiquitous among low-income kids. But today, as Instagram has grown in popularity and access to smartphones and mobile data has increased, a similar share of teens across all income levels use Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. The only significant difference comes in how they use Facebook. [70% of teens whose household income is under $30k use it, 56% of those in $30k-$75k, just 36% of families with household incomes over $75k.] Why?

There’s no simple answer to this question, but there are several compelling theories. Most of them have to do with resilience, where lower-income kids use technology to help them in various ways, filling gaps when other resources are unavailable. They use Facebook to keep in touch with their networks, to find support, and to get ahead.

Quartz spoke with communications experts who offered some answers, stemming from their work with low-income teenagers from various backgrounds, including immigrant children or those in foster care. The stories of several lower-income teens that Quartz spoke to aligned with the experts’ experiences (the teens were contacted through an organization in Rochester, New York, that helps get young people involved in their community and in social causes). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, as many as 9.4 million US children aged 12-17 live in low-income households. That’s about 39% of all US adolescents.

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For more about the effects on us that Facebook and other social networks have, read Social Warming, my latest book.


Why birds can fly over Mount Everest: Walter Murch’s letter to his granddaughter • Nautilus

Walter Murch:

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I’m going to imitate Rudyard Kipling and tell you a just-so story. Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the world 100 years ago. He wrote The Jungle Book. And also Just So Stories, which began as bedtime stories he told his daughter Josephine. They were about how animals got their famous features, like the camel’s hump and the leopard’s spots. Kipling was a wonderful writer but he made up his animal stories. My story is based on science, which means many people, through many recent experiments, have concluded things might “just so” be the way of this story.

It’s also a story about evolution, which is nature’s research and development department. Like Kipling, I’ve given a human voice to certain things: Bacteria form committees and petition the research and development department for answers to their problems, as do plants and dinosaurs. And the R&D department (which is to say, evolution) tries to come up with solutions. I’m going to call evolution “Mr. R&D.” When he finds a problem, Mr. R&D tests things out in different ways to come up with a solution. But sometimes those solutions have unforeseen consequences. So here we go!

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This is lovely, explaining along the way how Earth only closely avoided incinerating all life in a lightning strike.
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Did the Big Bang begin from a singularity? Scientists don’t think so any more • Big Think

Ethan Siegel:

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extrapolating beyond the limits of your measurable evidence is a dangerous, albeit tempting, game to play. After all, if we can trace the hot Big Bang back some 13.8 billion years, all the way to when the universe was less than 1 second old, what’s the harm in going all the way back just one additional second: to the singularity predicted to exist when the universe was 0 seconds old?

The answer, surprisingly, is that there’s a tremendous amount of harm — if you’re like me in considering “making unfounded, incorrect assumptions about reality” to be harmful. The reason this is problematic is because beginning at a singularity — at arbitrarily high temperatures, arbitrarily high densities, and arbitrarily small volumes — will have consequences for our universe that aren’t necessarily supported by observations.

For example, if the universe began from a singularity, then it must have sprung into existence with exactly the right balance of “stuff” in it — matter and energy combined — to precisely balance the expansion rate. If there were just a tiny bit more matter, the initially expanding universe would have already recollapsed by now. And if there were a tiny bit less, things would have expanded so quickly that the universe would be much larger than it is today.

And yet, instead, what we’re observing is that the universe’s initial expansion rate and the total amount of matter and energy within it balance as perfectly as we can measure.

Why?

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If you like having your mind expanded, though at a slightly slower rate than the universe in its early moments.
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AI predicts accident hot-spots from satellite imagery and GPS data • Unite.AI

Martin Anderson:

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Researchers from MIT and the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence have developed a machine learning system that analyzes high-resolution satellite imagery, GPS coordinates and historical crash data in order to map potential accident-prone sections in road networks, successfully predicting accident ‘hot spots’ where no other data or previous methods would indicate them.

The system offers bold predictions for areas in a road network that are likely to become accident black-spots, even where those areas have zero history of accidents. Testing the system over data covering four years, the researchers found that their predictions for these ‘no history’ potential accident hazard zones were borne out by events in subsequent years.

The new paper is called “Inferring high-resolution traffic accident risk maps based on satellite imagery and GPS trajectories”. The authors predict uses for the new architecture beyond accident prediction, hypothesizing that it could be applied to 911 emergency risk maps or systems to predict the likelihood for demand for taxis and ride-share providers.

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Gotta say, from the diagram in the paper (and the story) there’s not a whole lot of new predicting going on. Accidents in four specific locations over the past two years leads to a prediction for the coming two years of accidents at.. the same locations. Still, machine learning! 💪
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William Shatner describes his experience in space • Cosmic Perspective

A transcript of Shatner’s words, shortly after he arrived back on terra firma. Here’s an extract:

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“Everybody in the world needs to see… the um… (cries) … it was unbelievable, unbelievable. I mean, you know the little things… weightlessness… to see the blue color just.. go WHIP by!!! and now you’re staring into blackness. THAT’s the thing… the covering of blue… this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us. We think, oh, that’s blue the sky!  

“And then suddenly you shoot up through it all of the sudden… as if you whip off the sheet off you when you are asleep.. And you’re looking into blackness. Into BLACK UGLINESS… And you look down and there’s the blue down there… and the black up there and it’s… it’s just… there is Mother Earth… and comfort… and there is ….is there death?  I don’t know! Is that death? Is that the way death is?? WOOP, and it’s gone! Jesus…

“It was so moving to me… this experience …it’s something unbelievable. You see it… yeah, you know… uh… weightlessness… my stomach went up and I thought, ‘God, this is so weird…’ but not as weird as the covering of blue… this is what I NEVER expected. Oh, it’s one thing to say, “Oh… the sky and the thing and the… gradual th…” It’s all true… but what isn’t true… what is unknown until you do it is… is this pillow.. There’s this soft blue… look at the the beauty of that color! And it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant.. It’s what … how thick is the [atmosphere]? Is it a mile?!” 

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Somehow this reminds me of his 1960s spoken-word album. Though there’s more where that came from.
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Cybersecurity: EU to ban anonymous websites • Patrick Breyer

The MEP doesn’t like this idea:

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The EU is currently drafting legislation to increase cyber security (revised NIS Directive, in short “NIS 2”). According to this directive, the registration of internet domain names will in future require the correct identification of the owner in the Whois database, including name, address and telephone number. So far, registries such as denic do not register telephone numbers of the holders. The leading Industry Committee wants to additionally mandate „verification“ of the registration data. The plans could mean the end of “whois privacy” services for proxy registration of domains, threatening the safety of activists and whistleblowers. The Home Affairs Committee is voting on the issue this week. The lead committee ITRE is expected to take a position at the end of the month.

MEP Patrick Breyer, shadow rapporteur in the opinion-giving LIBE Committee, warns against the proposal:

“This indiscriminate identification policy for domain holders is a big step towards abolishing anonymous publications and leaks on the Internet.

“This policy endangers website operators, because only anonymity effectively protects against data theft and loss, stalking and identity theft, doxxing and ‘death lists’. The right to anonymity online is particularly indispensable for women, children, minorities and vulnerable persons, victims of abuse and stalking, for example. Whistleblowers and press informants, political activists and people in need of counselling, fall silent without the protection of anonymity. Only anonymity prevents the persecution and discrimination of courageous people in need of help and ensures the free exchange of sometimes vital information. If Wikileaks activists, for example, had had to register the platform’s website in their name, they would have been immediately prosecuted in the United States.

“I welcome the aim of increasing network security. But indiscriminate identification has nothing to do with network security. That is why my group and I are calling for the deletion of the identification requirement from the draft Directive.”

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Tricky balance. Anonymous sites enable phishing and fraud, though who’s to say that the details provided by fraudsters and phishers will be valid. Which means this would be a problem for those who need to stay anonymous.
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The creator economy is failing to spread the wealth • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Data revealed as a part of a massive Twitch hack last week found that this year the top 1% of all streamers earn more than half of all revenue on the platform, per the Wall Street Journal.

• Video: While a handful of creators have made substantial money, the vast majority of earners on Twitch have made less than $120 this year so far, per the report.

• Newsletters: The top ten publications on Substack collectively make more than $20 million a year in subscription revenue, while less popular newsletters typically make tens of thousands annually.

• Podcasts: The top 1% of podcast earners make the vast majority of podcast ad revenue, although efforts to broaden podcast revenue through new creator programs at Apple and Spotify will hopefully help more creators get paid.

• Social: A report from TechCrunch last month found that Twitter’s new “Super Followers” feature, which allows people to tip their favourite creators, only brought in $6,000 in its first two weeks.

What’s happening now with the creator economy mirrors all of the previous waves of digital media economies built before it via social media, blogging and websites.

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It’s the power law. Ineluctable when people freely choose within a network.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1658: Amazon faces copying claim, AirPods for health?, the Facebook-using teens, Cpt Kirk opines on space, Big Bang mystery, and more

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