Start Up No.1731: Dutch fine Apple again, Spotify’s Big Short, video games that spy, North Korea’s crypto nukes, and more

Fuel poverty is made worse by prepayment meters, which charge much higher prices. It’s an experience you don’t forget. CC-licensed photo by Lydia on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Be gentle with them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I lived through fuel poverty as a child. This is how it really feels • The Guardian

Kerry Hudson:


Let’s start with a multiple choice question. It is a cold, wet February evening. You come home with your two kids after school. You stand in the hallway and contemplate your options. Do you put on the heating? It is freezing and your kids are reluctant to take off their coats. Perhaps you should make a cheap but nutritious dinner for them. They have been saying all the way home that they are “starving”. You could give them their night-time bath, because it is two days since they had their last one, or save the cost of the heating for some new winter boots – theirs are too tight and letting in water.

You can pick only one option.

When energy bills increase for millions in April, these decisions will become a stark reality for many. According to the thinktank the Resolution Foundation, the number of households living in “fuel stress” will rise by 2.5 million to 5 million. This is a staggering number to comprehend, so please think of your neighbours, your auntie, your best friend, your favourite teacher from school who might be in that position.

As for the measures announced by the government on Thursday to ameliorate the effects of the rise in the energy price cap, the words “too little, too late” and “poorly thought‑out” spring to mind.

Perhaps I should be writing this from a clear-eyed, journalistic point of view, but in fact I am writing this from a place of fury. You see, I grew up in extreme poverty. I know only too well the absolute degradation and hardship of poverty – particularly fuel poverty – when home isn’t a home, but a place that you avoid as long as possible, lingering in shopping centres or libraries, where you can stay warm for a little longer.

…As a child, I came to know what it was to be constantly cold, even as you slept. Even a duvet could feel wet, heavy and hopeless.


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Dutch watchdog fines Apple $5.7m again in App Store dispute • Reuters

Toby Sterling:


The Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has been levying weekly fines of €5m on Apple since the company missed a Jan. 15 deadline to make changes ordered by the watchdog.

Apple, which could not immediately be reached for comment, has twice published information on its own blog about changes it is making to comply with the Dutch order. However, the ACM said on Monday it was not receiving enough information from the U.S. company to assess whether Apple was actually complying.

“ACM is disappointed in Apple’s behaviour and actions,” it said in a statement. It noted that Dutch courts have upheld its decision, which found that Apple’s behaviour violated competition law.

Apple is under pressure in many countries over the commissions it charges on in-app purchases, with the US Senate approving a bill last Thursday that would bar Apple and Alphabet Inc’s Google from requiring users to use their payment systems. read more

Apple on Jan. 15 first asserted it had complied with the Dutch regulator’s December order , which covers only dating apps like Match Group’s Tinder. But the regulator responded that Apple hadn’t actually yet made the changes – it had just indicated it would


If the ACM keeps on not liking Apple’s suggestion, the cost might get quite a bit bigger than any putative revenue that it’s getting from Dutch dating apps.
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The Big Short of music streaming • Dadadrummer

Damon Krukowski:


Spotify used the financial model of arbitrage to obtain a cheap if not free product – digital music – and resell it in a new context to realize profit. In other words, Spotify’s profit requires that digital music have no value. Spotify continually talks down the value of music on their platform – they offer it for free; they tell musicians we are lucky to be paid anything for it; they insist that without their service, there is only piracy and zero income. Most tellingly, they invest nothing back into music. Unlike a record label, publisher, or most anyone else in the music industry, Spotify devotes none of its profits to the development of new recordings.

In truth, without Spotify there are many ways to realize value for recorded music today. There is physical media; there are paid downloads; there are even other corporate streaming services that pay twice or three times the royalties that Spotify offers. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell know this well; they clearly have no doubt in the value of their music outside Spotify.

But Spotify can’t acknowledge that, in the spirit of normal negotiation, because it is in their vital interest to keep digital music from developing any value outside of the context they provide and sell – to subscribers, to advertisers, and above all to investors.

Is it any wonder that a company built on the financial device of arbitrage would appeal hugely to the stock market? Spotify’s accountants insist, nearly each and every quarter, that they have once again lost money on the music they stream. And yet this consistently losing business is now capitalized on the NYSE to the tune of $37bn.


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Scientists heal paralyzed mice with spinal cord implants • Futurism

Abby Lee Hood:


“If this works in humans, and we believe that it will, it can offer all paralyzed people hope that they may walk again,” the research team at the Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology told the Times of Israel, adding that the team has started discussing clinical trials with the US Food and Drug Administration.

The experiment took place at Tel Aviv University where the team, led by Professor Tal Dvir, engineered spinal cord tissue from human cells and implanted them into mice with long-term paralysis. Of the 15 mice they operated on, 12 were able to walk normally.

Dvir told the Times of Israel that the mice received spinal implants from cells of multiple people, but for human patients the plan would be to grow a unique spine for each using their own body’s cells. If approved, the study’s authors wrote in their conclusions that a personalized hydrogel would be created to implant into patients.

Of course, it’s always unclear whether an animal-tested therapy will work in humans.


There’s a Twitter account, @justsaysinmice, which points out that there are so many pieces of research which only work in mice that it’s exhausting.
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The unnerving rise of video games that spy on you • WIRED

Ben Egliston:


While there are no numbers on how many video game companies are surveilling their players in-game (although, as a recent article suggests, large publishers and developers like Epic, EA, and Activision explicitly state they capture user data in their license agreements), a new industry of firms selling middleware “data analytics” tools, often used by game developers, has sprung up.

These data analytics tools promise to make users more amenable to continued consumption through the use of data analysis at scale. Such analytics, once available only to the largest video game studios—which could hire data scientists to capture, clean, and analyze the data, and software engineers to develop in-house analytics tools—are now commonplace across the entire industry, pitched as “accessible” tools that provide a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace by companies like Unity, GameAnalytics, or Amazon Web Services. (Although, as a recent study shows, the extent to which these tools are truly “accessible” is questionable, requiring technical expertise and time to implement.)

As demand for data-driven insight has grown, so have the range of different services—dozens of tools in the past several years alone, providing game developers with different forms of insight. One tool—essentially Uber for playtesting—allows companies to outsource quality assurance testing, and provides data-driven insight into the results. Another supposedly uses AI to understand player value and maximize retention (and spending, with a focus on high-spenders).


The toxic (but commercially utterly compelling) combination of surveillance capitalism and opportunistic machine learning. Succeeded for social networks, so why not video games?
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IRS abandons facial recognition plans • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:


The IRS said Monday it would transition away from using a face-scanning service, offered by the company, in the coming weeks and would develop an additional authentication process that does not involve facial recognition.

The agency originally had said that starting this summer all taxpayers would need to submit a “video selfie” to the company to be able to access their tax records and other services on the IRS website. But lawmakers and advocates slammed the idea of mandating the technology’s use nationwide, saying that it would unfairly burden Americans without smartphones or computer cameras and would risk leaking sensitive data to hackers. Facial recognition algorithms have also been shown to work less accurately on darker skin.

“The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised,” IRS commissioner Charles Rettig said in a statement announcing the IRS decision. “Everyone should feel comfortable with how their personal information is secured, and we are quickly pursuing short-term options that do not involve facial recognition.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of nearly two dozen members of Congress who had urged the IRS to halt the plan, said in a statement Monday, “I appreciate that the administration recognizes that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive and no one should be forced to submit to facial recognition to access critical government services.”


Read the room, IRS, read the room.
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North Korea: missile programme funded through stolen crypto, UN report says • BBC News


North Korean cyber-attacks have stolen millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency to fund the country’s missile programmes, a UN report briefed to media says.

Between 2020 and mid-2021 cyber-attackers stole more than $50m (£37m) of digital assets, investigators found. Such attacks are an “important revenue source” for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, they said.

The findings were reportedly handed to the UN’s sanctions committee on Friday. The cyber-attacks targeted at least three cryptocurrency exchanges in North America, Europe and Asia.

The report also referenced a study published last month by the security firm Chainalysis that suggested North Korean cyberattacks could have netted as much as $400m worth of digital assets last year.

And in 2019, the UN reported that North Korea had accumulated an estimated $2bn for its weapons of mass destruction programmes by using sophisticated cyber-attacks.


Neatly tying together Kim Jong-un’s two big programmes when he took over: the nuclear weapons programme and hacking.
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When the boss lives in a cramped flat over an old shop, what hope has Britain got? • The Sunday Times

Robert Colvile:


Should we really be running a major economy from an awkwardly retrofitted set of Georgian townhouses? Does it make sense for No 10 [Downing St, the Prime Minister’s office and residence] to function as a cramped, ungainly, dilapidated hybrid of command centre, event space, provincial museum and family home — in which your influence is dictated largely by your physical proximity to the PM’s office?

Then there’s the way we treat those in charge. Leaving aside your views on the incumbent, does it sound like a recipe for peak performance to have the prime minister living in a flat above the shop, with no dedicated catering, cleaning or childcare (sharing the space, in this case, with two very young children)? To have no on-call GP, so that when he catches a potentially fatal disease, he is essentially locked in his flat, with meals shoved under the door, until he has to be carted off to hospital? That’s before we even get to the whole system of red boxes, in which the people running the country are handed a sheaf of printouts every evening and asked to make billion-pound decisions armed with a marker pen and bottle of wine.

A few weeks ago Tony Blair gave a big speech arguing that Britain was utterly unprepared for the challenges it faced. In particular, our long-term growth rate is “woefully insufficient to pay for the services we expect”. I hosted an event on Thursday with the director-general of the CBI, at which we both made the same point: without a radical pro-business agenda to get GDP up, we will remain in the awful trap of low growth, high spending and high taxes.

But how are we going to thrive in the 21st century with a power structure designed for the 19th? We’ve kept things going via a series of bodges — but no one can argue this is how you would do things if you started with a blank sheet of paper, or even one half-covered in crayons by one of the prime minister’s kids who had wandered into the office.


Physical proximity has often been crucial for power systems. Though you could do a lot better than No.10 and No.11 for organisation. The White House has similarly been criticised as inappropriate for the modern challenges it has (which became even worse when Covid hit). A problem with hanging on to the past.
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Queen Elizabeth is hooked on political gossip • POLITICO

Annabelle Dickson:


Former dispatch writers said they were instructed to write “the inside track” because the queen reads the newspapers and listens to BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning program, Today, or another daily news show.

Former Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who held the post between 2003 and 2005, recalls his instructions from the queen when he asked what he should write about.

“She said something like ‘that which doesn’t make the press would be of interest,’” he recalls. “It’s personal correspondence so it would never be disclosed to anybody. So there was every encouragement just to be frank and transparent with what one was saying because it was just private between she and I.”

Another, the Conservative Andrew MacKay, who held the post in 1996, admitted his initial “rather stilted efforts” prompted a phone call from the queen’s private secretary who suggested the queen wanted the “gossip and the inside track.” He subsequently transformed his letters into a “who’s up, who’s down,” something he was later told had been “appreciated.”

“It’s patently obvious to everybody but the most anti-royalist that she has been a hugely successful monarch over a very long period of time. I think one of the keys is her attention to detail, her desire to be well-informed, and not interfere, because she understood the constitutional position completely,” MacKay added.

Those characteristics have been a “help” to successive prime ministers, who hold weekly private meetings with the queen at Buckingham Palace, Mackay said.

By 2014, dispatches were sent to Buckingham Palace by email rather than being collected by a messenger, Anne Milton, one of the few female vice chamberlains to hold the post said.

“I used look for things that, in my very humble opinion, might amuse her,” Milton said. “If there had been a bit of a row in the house … it’s quite nice to give a bit of color to the events that have gone on.”


I do wonder what the briefing notes for the past few weeks have looked like. (The Queen is meant to be apolitical, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be interested in politics.)
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Nerdle – the daily numbers game

Richard Mann:


Driving home with Imogen, we were chatting about the Wordle craze and agreed there must be an equivalent for us maths fans. A few minutes later, we’d decided on the rules of the game and the name “nerdle”. As far as we can work out, there are over 100,000 valid words but we have chosen 17,723 valid “words” as there are quite a lot we thought you wouldn’t like. We think it’s just as fun playing with numbers as playing with letters. See if you agree!


It’s quite tough. Certainly tougher than Wordle. Which almost certainly means the NY Times is not going to buy it and there won’t be breathless features about it provoking family rows. If you need an alternative, there’s Mathler, which is about as mindbending.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little 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?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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