Start Up: Citymapper’s (K)Night Rider, Twitter’s abuse numbers, dark web goes darker, and more


Why is it Netflix makes money, while Spotify loses it, when they’re growing at the same rate? Photo by Javier Dominguez Ferrero on Flickr

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

CM2- Night Rider, our first ££ commercial bus route • Citymapper

Citymapper is starting a night bus, after analysing peoples’ travel needs and where they go. It’s all mod cons; looks very swish. And for the international readers:

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Note to Silicon Valley: it’s a social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle
Our geo-matching technology routes the multi-seated vehicles to specially calculated lat long locations, which optimise the boarding of multiple homosapiens with varied demographics, while minimising waiting times, leading to efficient overall ETAs.

Note to rest of the world: it’s a bus
A proper bus, since this is a busy route. We will use bus stops just like any other bus. We will operate hop on hop off just like any other bus. The buses will be green though of course.

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But all of it is worth a read. Going from a free app to a paid-for bus is a neat idea.
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Twitter touts progress combating abuse, but repeat victims remain frustrated • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel:

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It’s been just over seven months since Twitter pledged to move faster to combat the systemic abuse problem that has plagued it for a decade, and the company claims to have made dramatic improvements in that time.

In a Thursday blog post by Ed Ho, Twitter’s general manager of the consumer product and engineering groups, the company said that users are “experiencing significantly less abuse on Twitter today than they were six months ago.” The company also touted, for the first time, statistics about its progress on combating abuse. According to Ho, Twitter is “taking action on 10x the number of abusive accounts every day compared to the same time last year” and has limited account functionality and suspended “thousands more abusive accounts each day” compared to the same time last year.

Twitter claims this uptick in account suspensions and limitations is changing the behavior of its most contentious users. According to Ho, 65% of limited accounts are only suspended once for rules violations; after Twitter limits or suspends accounts for a brief time (and explains why), these users “generate 25% fewer abuse reports.”

Lastly, the company said that it has seen evidence that its biggest anti-abuse feature — customized muting and algorithmic filtering tools — is “having a positive impact.” According to Ho, “blocks after @mentions from people you don’t follow are down 40%.”

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Also not having an amazingly divisive election going on helps.
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Fitbit chief confident new smartwatch will deliver • FT

Tim Bradshaw:

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Fitbit’s forthcoming smartwatch will feature more precise GPS tracking, a music player and new biometric sensors, according to chief executive James Park, who insisted that the product remained “on track” despite reports of delays.

Over the longer term, the device could pave the way for new medical applications that would require regulatory approval, Mr Park told the Financial Times, as the company looked to make its wearable technology a “must-have” for consumers by becoming more integrated into the healthcare system.

“The product is on track to meet our expectations and the expectations that we’ve set for investors,” Mr Park said. “It’s going to be, in my opinion, our best product yet.”

The long-awaited smartwatch, which analysts expect to go on sale this year, is a make-or-break product for Fitbit as it faces a resurgent Apple Watch and lower-cost competition from China.

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Intel eliminates wearables division • CNBC

Christina Farr:

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Intel has axed the division that worked on health wearables, including fitness trackers, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The company has been slowly de-emphasizing its own line of wearables for the past several years, and has not mentioned wearables on its earnings calls since 2014.

In November, TechCrunch reported that the company was planning to take a step back from the business after its acquisition of the Basis fitness watch didn’t pan out as expected. Intel denied at the time that it was stepping back.

But a source told CNBC that the chip maker in fact let go about 80% of the Basis group in November. Many of the people were given the opportunity to relocate to other parts of the business.

About two weeks ago, Intel completely eliminated the group, this person said. The company’s New Technologies Group, which looks at cutting-edge business areas, is now focusing on augmented reality, another source told CNBC.

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Anyone get the impression wearables are harder than they look?
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Here’s Spotify’s biggest problem – in a Netflix-shaped nutshell – Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

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Netflix’s average monthly subscriber spend has been calculated by taking the firm’s total subs revenue at the end of Q4 of each year, then dividing it by the firm’s total paying subscriber count in the same period – and then splitting by three to give a mean monthly average. Spotify’s has been worked out slightly differently: dividing its total annual subscription revenue with its subscriber base at the end of December in each case.

On Spotify’s side, this gives us an inevitably low-end approximation of Average Revenue Per Subscriber (ARPS), but it’s still within the realms of accuracy.

So, science done… back to ‘Netflix up, Spotify down’. Here’s the line graph that gave us our headline above. Just look at the difference between 2012 and 2016.

Interestingly, in 2016, Netflix raised its prices – moving up its standard HD subscription charge in the US from $9-a-month to $10-a-month. Alongside this move, the company brought in an SD subscription tier at $8-a-month, while also launching an ultra-HD tier at $12-a-month. These new prices, and the opportunity to upsell customers to an ultra-HD/4K package, explains the near-dollar rise in ARPS in the chart above. (In Q4 2016, Netflix’s streaming operation generated $2.35bn, up 41% YoY.) Recent reports suggest more Netflix price hikes could be on the way later this year.

Remember: Netflix and Spotify are now growing at almost exactly the same rate of 10m net subscriber additions every six months. But only one of these companies is pushing the average spend of these new customers further and further down.

Guess what? It’s the one that’s losing money.

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Netflix’s advantage is in the points at the end: it can upsell customers to higher-quality video. Nobody cares about higher-quality sound. (Except you, fine, but it’s only you.) Spotify has tiered pricing for desktop-only and mobile, but beyond that it’s stuffed. Netflix has many more ways to make money, and so profit, from the same piece of content.
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National Audit Office confirms that police, banks, Home Office pass the buck on fraud • Light Blue Touchpaper

Ross Anderson on the NAO’s report which points out that online fraud is a big problem:

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I’m afraid that the NAO’s recommendations are less impressive. Let me give an example. The main online fraud bothering Cambridge University relates to bogus accommodation; about fifty times a year, a new employee or research student turns up to find that the apartment they rented doesn’t exist. This is an organised scam, run by crooks in Germany, that affects students elsewhere in the UK (mostly in London) and is netting £5-10m a year. The cybercrime guy in the Cambridgeshire Constabulary can’t do anything about this as only the National Crime Agency in London is allowed to talk to the German police; but he can’t talk to the NCA directly. He has to go through the Regional Organised Crime Unit in Bedford, who don’t care. The NCA would rather do sexier stuff; they seem to have planned to take over the Serious Fraud Office, as that was in the Conservative manifesto for this year’s election.

Every time we look at why some scam persists, it’s down to the institutional economics – to the way that government and the police forces have arranged their targets, their responsibilities and their reporting lines so as to make problems into somebody else’s problems. The same applies in the private sector; if you complain about fraud on your bank account the bank may simply reply that as their systems are secure, it’s your fault. If they record it at all, it may be as a fraud you attempted to commit against them. And it’s remarkable how high a proportion of people prosecuted under the Computer Misuse Act appear to have annoyed authority, for example by hacking police websites. Why do we civilians not get protected with this level of enthusiasm?

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Facebook exec Campbell Brown: we are launching a news subscription product • TheStreet

Leon Lazaroff:

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A week after publishers asked Congress for an anti-trust exemption to negotiate collectively with large platforms, specifically Facebook and Alphabet’s Google (GOOGL) , Brown, the head of the company’s news partnerships, said Facebook will launch a subscription-based news product with initial tests beginning in October.

The feature appears to be built on top of Facebook’s Instant Articles, which aggregates stories from hundreds of publishers based on a reader’s interests and preferences. In addition to steering readers to a publisher’s home page to consider taking out a digital subscription, Facebook plans to erect a paywall which would require readers to become subscribers of the platform after they’d accessed 10 articles, Brown said.

“One of the things we heard in our initial meetings from many newspapers and digital publishers is that ‘we want a subscription product — we want to be able to see a paywall in Facebook,'” Brown said at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit, an industry conference, in New York City on July 18. “And that is something we’re doing now. We are launching a subscription product.”

The paywall idea is based on premium and metered plans and has been in the works for a while, Brown said.

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This will work fine as long as nobody can access free content elsewhere on Facebook. That will happen, right?
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US, Europol, and Netherlands announce shutdowns of two massive dark web markets • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

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Robert Patterson, deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, also confirmed that Alexandre Cazes—who was arrested in Thailand July 5 and was found dead while jailed there—was the suspected administrator of AlphaBay.

The Dutch police force Politie led the investigation into Hansa, and gained control of the market after the arrest of two staff members in Germany.

“The fall of Hansa Market is the culmination of an infiltration operation, the Dutch police in June had management control of the marketplace,” a Google translation of the Politie press release reads. It adds that the authorities intercepted tens of thousands of unencrypted messages, which allowed investigators to identify delivery addresses. “Some 10,000 foreign addresses of buyers [of] Hansa Market are transferred to Europol,” the release reads.

In an ironic twist, when AlphaBay closed, many users migrated to Hansa, which was already under the control of the authorities.

AlphaBay launched in December 2014, around a year after law enforcement seized the original Silk Road marketplace. After the administrators of Evolution, another marketplace, seemingly disappeared with millions of dollars worth of their users’ bitcoins, AlphaBay quickly became the dominant dark web trading site. Nicolas Christin, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University who has followed the dark web marketplaces closely, told Motherboard in an email on Thursday he estimated the AlphaBay was generating revenue of between $600,000 and $800,000 a day in 2017.

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Closing down one site and catching all the people migrating to the next – where they would give their real(ish) details to receive goods – is good coordination. To the question “why not just track where stuff is going, since you can see the address, and arrest people individually?” the answer is probably (1) don’t want to be dealing illegal stuff (2) very labour-intensive to do that, and you’d have to give evidence in court of how you know to arrest someone. No word from the government(s) on how they infiltrated the sites; probably through zero-day exploits.

There’s also an FBI press release which mentions DRUGS, so there you go.
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I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration. • The Washington Post

Joel Clement was director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the US Interior Department for seven years – and then was moved abruptly to an unrelated job “in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies”:

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On Wednesday, I filed two forms — a complaint and a disclosure of information — with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. I filed the disclosure because eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities. I filed the complaint because the Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger. Our country values the safety of our citizens, and federal employees who disclose threats to health and safety are protected from reprisal by the Whistleblower Protection Act and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Much more distressing, though, is what this charade means for American livelihoods. The Alaska Native villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik are perilously close to melting into the Arctic Ocean. In a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the land upon which citizens’ homes and schools stand is newly vulnerable to storms, floods and waves. As permafrost melts and protective sea ice recedes, these Alaska Native villages are one superstorm from being washed away, displacing hundreds of Americans and potentially costing lives. The members of these communities could soon become refugees in their own country.

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Trump got 51.3% of votes cast in Alaska in November 2016, slightly increasing the margin from 2012.
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Public service announcement: you should not force quit apps on iOS • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:

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The single biggest misconception about iOS is that it’s good digital hygiene to force quit apps that you aren’t using. The idea is that apps in the background are locking up unnecessary RAM and consuming unnecessary CPU cycles, thus hurting performance and wasting battery life.

That’s not how iOS works. The iOS system is designed so that none of the above justifications for force quitting are true. Apps in the background are effectively “frozen”, severely limiting what they can do in the background and freeing up the RAM they were using. iOS is really, really good at this. It is so good at this that unfreezing a frozen app takes up way less CPU (and energy) than relaunching an app that had been force quit. Not only does force quitting your apps not help, it actually hurts. Your battery life will be worse and it will take much longer to switch apps if you force quit apps in the background.

Here’s a short and sweet answer from Craig Federighi, in response to an email from a customer asking if he force quits apps and whether doing so preserves battery life: “No and no.”

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I think that of all the misconceptions around iOS (well, computing misconceptions; there are plenty of business ones which need not detain us for now), this is the most pervasive, most persistent, and most rooted in behaviour learnt from past computing paradigms. Of course on your PC you free up more memory and so give programs more room to breathe by force-quitting unused apps. Obviously.

This is a remarkable aspect of iOS: it is essentially a mainframe OS (BSD Unix) which has been tweaked to do this. (Android, as Gruber notes, hasn’t been tweaked in this way, which is why iOS runs rings around it on a “multiple loop app test”.)
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‘Samsung not enthusiastic about AI speaker’ • Korean Investor

Shin Ji-hye:

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Samsung Electronics may not launch an artificial intelligence speaker anytime soon due to marketable issues, said a source familiar with the matter. 

There has been growing speculation over whether Samsung will soon roll out an AI speaker, following reports of its development of one powered by voice assistant Bixby. The project codenamed Vega has reportedly progressed for more than a year.

“Samsung currently does not view Al speakers as marketable, as the global market is already dominated by unbeatable Amazon and the Korean market is too small to make profits,” an anonymous source told The Korea Herald.

The global AI speaker market is currently dominated by Amazon Echo, which has a more than 70% share. There is also the emerging player Google Home. The Korean market is dominated by SK Telecom’s NUGU with around 100,000 units of sales.

“More importantly, Samsung cannot afford to focus on the uncertain market, as most of its AI specialists – whose number is much less than that of the US tech giants – are currently going all out to develop the Bixby version in English,” the source said. 

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That’s gone from “floated as an idea” to “shot down” in about a week. A new record?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Amazon’s music challenge, spotting photo fakes, Apple patents Siri dock, and more


Mozilla wants to create an open-source speech recognition database. But why, exactly? Photo by royalconstatinesociety on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Peu de trop. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ethereum co-founder says crypto coin market is a timebomb • Bloomberg

Camila Russo:

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Initial coin offerings, a means of crowdfunding for blockchain-technology companies, have caught so much attention that even the co-founder of the ethereum network, where many of these digital coins are built, says it’s time for things to cool down in a big way.

“People say ICOs are great for ethereum because, look at the price, but it’s a ticking time-bomb,” Charles Hoskinson, who helped develop ethereum, said in an interview. “There’s an over-tokenization of things as companies are issuing tokens when the same tasks can be achieved with existing blockchains. People are blinded by fast and easy money.”

Firms have raised $1.3 billion this year in digital coin sales, surpassing venture capital funding of blockchain companies and up more than six-fold from the total raised last year, according to Autonomous Research. Ether, the digital currency linked to the ethereum blockchain, surged from around $8 after its ICO at the start of the year to just under $400 last month. It’s since dropped by about 50 percent.

Hoskinson, who runs technology research firm IOHK, is part of a growing chorus of blockchain watchers voicing concern about the rapid surge in cryptocurrency prices and digital coin crowdsales that have collected millions of dollars in minutes. Regulation is the biggest risk to the sector, as it’s likely that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which has remained on the sidelines, will step in to say that digital coins are securities, he said.

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Can you tell whether this photo has been manipulated? • Science | AAAS

Giorgia Guglielmi:

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If you were fooled by the recent photo of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin having an intense discussion at the G20 summit, don’t feel bad. In a recent study people were only able to spot faked images 60% of the time. And almost half of the time they were not able to tell where an image had been altered, researchers report today in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

To conduct the research, scientists sourced 10 photos from Google and altered six of them with image editing software. Then they asked more than 700 volunteers whether the images had been manipulated. Here’s one: 

Is this photo manipulated? (If you go to the article, you can click on it to find out.)

In a second experiment, the scientists developed an online test to judge people’s ability to locate manipulations. They asked participants to tell where an image had been manipulated, regardless of whether people said the image had been altered in the first place.

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I’d say 60% is quite high for spotting fakes – usually these things are off and around the internet before anyone has queried them. (I’m terrible at spotting them.) The paper, linked, is educational.
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Ransomware attack puts KQED in low-tech mode • San Francisco Chronicle

Marissa Lang:

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The journalists at San Francisco’s public TV and radio station, KQED, have been stuck in a time warp.

All Internet-connected devices, tools and machinery have been cut off in an attempt to isolate and contain a ransomware attack that infected the station’s computers June 15. More than a month later, many remain offline.

Though the stations’ broadcasts have been largely uninterrupted — minus a half-day loss of the online stream on the first day of the attack — KQED journalists said every day has brought new challenges and revealed the immeasurable ways the station, like many businesses today, has become dependent on Internet-connected devices.

“It’s like we’ve been bombed back to 20 years ago, technology-wise,” said Queena Kim, a senior editor at KQED. “You rely on technology for so many things, so when it doesn’t work, everything takes three to five times longer just to do the same job.”

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Notable that the only computer being used in the story is a Mac. Externalities of Windows are multifarious.
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Apple granted patent on smart dock with Siri and wireless charging • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Apple was granted a new patent this week, one that’s particularly interesting given Apple’s upcoming HomePod and rumors of a wirelessly charging iPhone 8: an iPhone dock that could have Siri and a wireless charger built in.

The patent, officially for a “Smart dock for activating a voice recognition mode of a portable electronic device,” is pretty broad. It covers a dock that could recognize that an iPhone had been placed into it and activate a microphone that could listen for voice commands to allow users to control a phone from across a room. In other words, it’s a Siri dock. The patent also covers multiple ways of charging said iPhone, including wireless charging, and describes docks that range just simple connectors with a microphone and speaker to full-fledged miniature computers with buttons and displays.

Now, before I go off into rampant speculation, it’s worth remembering that this is a patent, not an actual product announcement. But the interesting part is how this could tie in to Apple’s HomePod strategy.

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So it’s the Apple iPod Hi-Fi living again?
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Mozilla is crowdsourcing a massive speech-recognition system • Fast Company

Sean Captain:

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From Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri, speech recognition and response are becoming mainstays of how we interact with computers, apps, and internet services. But the technology is owned by giant corporations. Now the Mozilla Foundation, maker of the free Firefox browser, is recruiting volunteers to train an open-source speech recognition system.

Project Common Voice recruits web surfers to spend a couple minutes reading sentences aloud and/or listening to other people’s recordings to check their accuracy. It’s a very minimal contribution for volunteers: Just read three sentences to help the system understand what everyday speech sounds like. No need to go to a soundproof room or get a high-quality microphone. “We want the audio quality to reflect the audio quality a speech-to-text engine will see in the wild,” reads the projects FAQ. “This teaches the speech-to-text engine to handle various situations—background talking, car noise, fan noise—without errors.

Mozilla is out to collect at least 10,000 hours to train a database that anyone can use for free.

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Not quite sure who benefits from this. An open-source speech recognition system is only going to be as good as its training data – and it needs millions of peoples’ voices.
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Amazon is now the 3rd biggest music subscription service • Music Industry Blog

Mark Mulligan:

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At MIDiA we have long argued that Amazon is the dark horse of streaming music. That horse is not looking so dark anymore. We’ve been tracking weekly usage of streaming music apps on a quarterly basis since 2016 and we’ve seen Amazon growing strongly quarter upon quarter. To the extent that Amazon Music is now the 2nd most widely used streaming music app, 2nd only to Spotify which benefits from a large installed base of free users to boost its numbers. So, in terms of pure subscription services, Amazon has the largest installed base of weekly active users.

But it’s not just in terms of active users that Amazon is making such headway. It is racking up subscribers too. Based on conversations with rights holders and other industry executives we can confirm that Amazon is now the 3rd largest subscription service. Amazon has around 16 million music subscribers (ie users of Amazon Prime Music and also Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers). This puts it significantly ahead of 4th and 5th placed players QQ Music and Deezer and gives it a global market share of 12%.

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Makes sense, if you assume people are playing music via their Echo device. And so of course all the use is concentrated in the Prime markets – US, UK, Germany, Japan – where it has 40m potential users.

Mulligan estimates there are 13m Echos in use. All of which could be good for Apple’s plan to get people to play music through a home smart speaker. Though it’s 13m behind. (There are about 125m households in the US, 27.1m in the UK, 37.5m in Germany, 49m in Japan. So a fair bit of room to expand into for everyone.)
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Google to launch automated feed based on users’ interests • FT

Richard Waters:

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Google took a step closer to competing with Facebook’s core news feed service on Wednesday as it announced a new automated “feed” of its own to deepen its connection with users on mobile devices.

Unlike the mobile feeds of services such Facebook and Twitter, however, Google’s version will be based entirely on what the company knows about its users’ interests rather than their social connections, drawing on the personalised data and technology platform already built to support its core search engine.

The Google feed will initially be available only on the company’s main mobile search app, though it will eventually also appear in browsers and on the Google.com page, said Ben Gomes, the company’s vice-president of engineering.

The prospect of preloading information on to the normally pristine search page echoes a shortlived attempt more than a decade ago to turn it into a home for personalised information.

The feed is designed to contain news and information tied to users’ interests, based on things they have searched for before. It will also draw on other things Google knows about its users, for instance serving up a range of information in anticipation of an upcoming trip.

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The “shortlived attempt” would be iGoogle, launched in May 2005 and killed in November 2013 “because the company believed the need for it had eroded over time”. Nope.
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Google Glass 2.0 is a startling second act • WIRED

Steven Levy:

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The difference between the original Glass and the Enterprise edition could be summarized neatly by two images. The first is the iconic photo of Brin alongside designer Diane von Furstenberg at a fashion show, both wearing the tell-tale wraparound headband with display stub. The second image is what I saw at the factory where Erickson works, just above the Iowa state line and 90 miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Workers at each station on the tractor assembly line—sporting eyewear that doesn’t look much different from the safety frames required by OSHA—begin their tasks by saying, “OK, Glass, Proceed.” When they go home, they leave their glasses behind.

These Jackson, Minnesota, workers may be onto something. A recent Forrester Research report predicts that by 2025, nearly 14.4 million US workers will wear smart glasses. It wasn’t referring to fashion runways. It turns out that with Glass, Google originally developed something with promising technology—and in its first effort at presenting it, failed to understand who could use it best and what it should be doing. Now the company has found a focus. Factories and warehouses will be Glass’s path to redemption.

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It’s been selling by the hundred, apparently. A niche; even if that Forrester report pans out, don’t expect that Google will have the market all to itself. Though I’ve always said that Google Glass’s best chance was in the business, not consumer, market.
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How I discovered the first big mobile privacy scandal • Motherboard

Alasdair Allan:

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But as Pete [Warden] put it at the time, “The main reason we went public with this was exactly because it already seemed to be an open secret among people who make their living doing forensic phone analysis, but not among the general public.”

Apple’s immediate response to the story was also perhaps somewhat disingenuous. “The iPhone is not logging your location,” it said. “Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.” This ignored that fact that if the phone is storing a list of access points and cell towers around your location then the center of those separate points will be a good approximation of your location. After all, that was the whole point of storing them in the first place. Contrary to Apple’s claims in its initial response, the phones continued to store location data even when location services were disabled…

…By 2013, Apple was still collecting location data. But this time they were exposing it in the user interface and allowing users to manage it. These days, locationgate wouldn’t even be a story.

Since then, people have become a lot more comfortable with the idea of sharing location data, while at the same time becoming a lot more nuanced about how that data is shared. Recent privacy scandals, such as when Uber updated its app asking users to share their location all the time, even when the app wasn’t running—is illustrative. People are OK with their phone tracking their location, but want control over how it’s shared.

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I had the “newspaper” exclusive on this: Alasdair and Pete had an O’Reilly blogpost, and I had a Guardian article, and they went live at the same time. It was a huge, huge story at the time.
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Bixby feels more like a return of the old Samsung than a path to the future – The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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then there’s Bixby Voice, which is the heart of the Bixby experience. Samsung touts Bixby Voice as a way to interact with your phone more than a virtual assistant, but in reality, the line between the two is far blurrier than the company describes. You can ask Bixby Voice for weather information, facts, upcoming appointments, and so on. You know, all of the stuff that you can also ask the Google Assistant to do.

Bixby’s big difference, as Samsung would like you to believe, is that you can also ask Bixby to open apps and perform actions on your device. You can ask Bixby to open the settings app and turn up your screen’s brightness, or ask it to send the picture you’re looking at in the gallery app to your significant other through a text message. Ideally, it will do these things automatically, without requiring you to manually switch apps or type in a contact’s info.

But in practice, using Bixby Voice to do things on your phone is not any faster or easier than just tapping the touchscreen the old-fashioned way. It takes so long for Bixby Voice to launch (whether I press and hold the Bixby button to activate listening mode or use the “Hi Bixby” wake command) and hear what I’m saying that I could have performed the task three times by the time it has processed what I said and performed my action.

Further, there are many times when I ask Bixby to do something and it either doesn’t understand me or just doesn’t do what I expect it to. Just this morning I asked Bixby to “take a screenshot and share it to Twitter.” It got the screenshot part right, but then it attempted to share the image in a private DM conversation instead of a public tweet. I had to start the process all over again in order to do what I could have done manually the first time.

Basically, after weeks of using Bixby Voice, I still can’t trust that it will do what I want it to. That means that I won’t use it and will continue to use my phone the same way I always have. Trust will be even more important when Samsung brings Bixby to other appliances.

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And he doesn’t have any in it. This is years late.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: improving the Echo, block that form!, a week in (then out) of Soundcloud, Google blocks untrusted apps, and more


The UK government wants people to log onto porn with credit cards. Experts aren’t impressed. Photo by Sean MacEntee on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. How about that? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Porn ID checks set to start in April 2018 – BBC News

Leo Kelion on the UK government’s proposals:

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two experts who advised the government on its plans have expressed reservations about both how quickly the scheme is being rolled out and its wider implications.

“It seems to me to be a very premature date,” commented Dr Victoria Nash, lead author of a report commissioned in the run-up to the law being drafted. “The idea you can get a regulatory body up and running in that timeframe seems extraordinary to me. And while I don’t have a problem with asking these companies to act responsibly, I don’t see it as a solution to stopping minors seeing pornography.”

This, she explained, was because the act does not tackle the fact that services including Twitter and Tumblr contain hardcore pornography but will not be required to introduce age-checks. Nor, she added, would teens be prevented from sharing copied photos and clips among themselves.
“It may make it harder for children to stumble across pornography, especially in the younger age range, but it will do nothing to stop determined teenagers,” Dr Nash concluded.

One cyber-security expert on the same advisory panel was more critical. “The timeline is unrealistic – but beyond that, this is one of the worst proposals I have seen on digital strategy,” said Dr Joss Wright from the Oxford Internet Institute. “There are hundreds of thousands of websites where this material can be accessed and you are not going to catch all of those. There’s privacy issues – you’re requiring people to effectively announce the fact they are looking at this material to the credit card authorities.

“And there’s serious security issues from requiring people to enter their credit card details into untrusted sites.”

«

Credit card details and porn sites can lead to terrible results. Operation Ore was over 10 years ago. Its effects will linger.
link to this extract


Autonomous driving, parking and planning • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Greenberg:

»

Beijing, like many rapidly growing cities, now has some formidable traffic problems. (We budgeted two hours between every meeting and found this left very little cushion for on-time arrivals.) But there is another problem with all those cars – where to put them. In recent years, we have watched with mounting horror the difficulties of parking in Beijing. We visited a shopping district in an office park far from the center of the city, and at lunch time cars were double and triple parked the length of the entire street.

If you scan the Internet you can find a whole literature about the amount of space given over to parking. Multi-car garages in the US can occupy a third of the house’s square footage. Add up the amount of land set aside for parking lots and curb parking, and then the necessary buffers, it is a staggering amount of space. In the US our cities are now planned for parking (except in San Francisco which has adopted a deliberate plan to reduce the amount of parking, which is a whole other topic). If cars were autonomous, we could radically reshape the way we build cities. We could make cities denser without making them feel more crowed. Walking around a suburb could become realistic. If we want to get fully Utopian, we could imagine the health benefits from this alone. A more quantitative approach would be to calculate the real estate savings alone from halving parking, an amount that is probably measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

We readily admit that this is a bit of fantastical, but it is not wholly unrealistic.

«

link to this extract


Placeholders in form fields are harmful • Nielsen-Norman Group

»

Placeholder text within a form field makes it difficult for people to remember what information belongs in a field, and to check for and fix errors. It also poses additional burdens for users with visual and cognitive impairments…

Some forms replace field labels with in-field placeholder text to reduce clutter on the page, or to shorten the length of the form. While this approach is based on good intentions, our research shows that it has many negative consequences.


Worst: In this example, placeholder text is used instead of a label.

Below are 7 main reasons why placeholders should not be used as replacements for field labels.

«

They’re all good ones. You’ll recognise them when you see them.
link to this extract


Playing for third place • ZGP

Don Marti:

»

When we make decisions about how much user surveillance we’re going to allow on a platform, we’re making a political decision.

Anyway. “News Outlets to Seek Bargaining Rights Against Google and Facebook.”

The standings so far.

1) Shitlords and fraud hackers

2) Adtech and social media bros

3) NEWS SITES HERE (?)

News sites want to go to Congress, to get permission to play for third place in their own business? You want permission to bring fewer resources and less experience to a surveillance marketing game that the Internet companies are already losing?

We know the qualities of a medium that you win by being creepier, and we know the qualities of a medium that you can win with reputation and creativity. Why waste time and money asking Congress for the opportunity to lose, when you could change the game instead?

Maybe achieving balance in political views depends on achieving balance in business model. Instead of buying in to the surveillance marketing model 100%, and handing an advantage to one side, maybe news sites should help users control what data they share in order to balance competing political interests.

«

Brutal, but true.
link to this extract


My week at SoundCloud • Hacker Noon

Matthew Liam Healy started work in Berlin on the Monday:

»

Outside of the on-boarding, I was getting to know my team. Every single one of them was as friendly and helpful as you could possibly hope for. After three days with them I was already convinced this could be amongst the best teams I’ve ever worked on.

My formal induction into the team consisted of a few hours pair programming each day, and it was in the middle of one of these pairing sessions, on Thursday, that we got an email from Alexander Ljung, SoundCloud’s CEO. There would be a company “all hands” meeting at 4pm.
There had been a lot of jokes in my first week about potential acquisitions. Everyone’s heard the Spotify rumour, the Google rumour, and, more recently, the Deezer rumour. I also heard jokes about Disney, about IBM, and about Apple. So when the meeting was called, we all assumed we knew what was going on. SoundCloud was being acquired.

I had actually been through an acquisition before, when an agency I had just started working for was bought by its biggest client. It had gone pretty well for me then, and I was excited to see what might happen now.

So we made a few jokes, and kept on coding. I did a few TDD loops in an attempt to tackle a crash bug that had just been found in an alpha release. Basically things continued as normal until the meeting.

The minute Alex said the business was pivoting to focus more on creators, I knew I was gone. I was hired to the iOS Listening team, to work on features for listeners. Plus, German law concerning layoffs has something of a last-in-first-0ut flavour to it. He said those affected would receive meeting invites, and then not two minutes later the meeting invite popped up on my Apple Watch.

I love my Watch, but it’s not a great way to find out you’re losing your job.

«

Very strange how it was hiring even as it was about to chop a ton of jobs. Or was it trying to get a lot of people on board ahead of an expected acquisition so it could seem to be cutting effectively to its prospective acquirers?
link to this extract


BP looks to big data to help weather weak oil price • FT

Andrew Ward:

»

BP is aiming to raise its data storage capacity from about 1 petabyte — equivalent to 20m four-drawer filing cabinets filled with documents — to 6PB by 2020 as the group integrates machine learning and artificial intelligence into its operations.

More than 99% of oil and gas wells operated by BP around the world are equipped with sensors that produce a constant flood of real-time data on production performance as well as the condition of infrastructure, Mr Hashmi said. This information is fed into a cloud-based storage system which allows BP engineers anywhere in the world to access the information…

…Reliability of BP’s exploration and production facilities — measuring factors such as time lost to production stoppages — has increased from 88% in 2012 to 95% last year and Mr Hashmi said technology was the main reason. This had contributed to $7bn of annual cost savings by BP since 2014.

Among the innovations has been a “digital twin” system that allows BP engineers to test maintenance procedures and other critical engineering work using virtual reality before carrying out the work on real facilities.

In June, BP invested $20m in a Californian start-up called Beyond Limits, which is aiming to commercialise artificial intelligence technology developed for deep space missions by Nasa. Mr Hashmi said machine learning would allow BP to use accumulated data from drilling operations to improve speed and success rates in future wells.

«

“Digital twins” is an interesting twist. Basically scenario planning, but getting better and better.
link to this extract


G Suite Developers Blog: New security protections to reduce risk from unverified apps

»

We’re constantly working to secure our users and their data. Earlier this year, we detailed some of our latest anti-phishing tools and rolled-out developer-focused updates to our app publishing processes, risk assessment systems, and user-facing consent pages. Most recently, we introduced OAuth apps whitelisting in G Suite to enable admins to choose exactly which third-party apps can access user data.

Over the past few months, we’ve required that some new web applications go through a verification process prior to launch based upon a dynamic risk assessment.

Today, we’re expanding upon that foundation, and introducing additional protections: bolder warnings to inform users about newly created web apps and Apps Scripts that are pending verification.

«

This is in response to the Google Docs worm back in March, which was actually phishing for your email and password by being an application called “Google Docs”.

Google’s going to have a big “unverified app” screen, as above. Stable door and horses, in some instances.
link to this extract


Amazon’s next Echo will be more like Apple’s HomePod • Engadget

Devindra Hardawar:

»

The new Echo will be both shorter and slimmer than the original, almost as if it were three or four Echo Dots stacked on top of each other, our source claims. Amazon is also softening its design with rounded edges and a cloth-like covering, rather than the current Echo’s plastic shell and flat ends. And yes, it should sound better, too. The company is packing in several tweeters this time around, instead of just relying on one large tweeter and a woofer (for low end). The HomePod, in comparison, features seven tweeters, which is big reason why it sounded better than the Sonos Play:3 and the Echo in our brief demo.

Amazon is also improving the new Echo’s microphone technology, though it’s unclear how it’s doing so. The current model features an array of seven far-field mics, while the HomePod has six and Google Home has two. Amazon might be able to make improvements to the software and acoustic modeling — that’s how Google’s speaker manages to pick up your commands with far fewer mics. But given that Amazon helped to pioneer the use of far-field microphones in a home speaker, I wouldn’t be surprised if it managed to cram in some new hardware innovations.

«

Notable how the Echo, which is in millions of homes (Neil Cybart estimates it could have sold as many as 10m in 2016, and heading for 15m this year), is being compared to the HomePod, which isn’t even on sale yet. Brand power?
link to this extract


What If Big Oil’s bet on gas is wrong? • Bloomberg

Jack Farchy and Kelly Gilblom:

»

“Wind and solar are just getting too cheap, too fast” for gas to play a transitional role [between a majority of oil/coal power generation and a majority of renewable power generation], said Seb Henbest, lead author of the BNEF report.

The consultant estimates that onshore wind and solar power are already competitive with coal and gas in Germany, and that within five years they will be cheaper to build than new coal and gas plants in China, the U.S. and India. By the late 2020s, it will start to even be cheaper to build new onshore wind and solar power than run existing coal and gas plants.

The trends that are undercutting optimism about the global gas outlook are already playing out in Europe. Natural gas demand remains well below a 2010 peak, as greater energy efficiency, rapid adoption of renewables and resilient coal consumption cut into its market share.

The IEA does not see European gas demand returning to its 2010 high. In its base case scenario, European gas demand would be at the same level in 2040 as in 2020.

Still, most forecasts anticipate strong growth globally for natural gas demand for two decades or more. In the U.S., plentiful cheap supplies thanks to the shale boom helped gas displace coal as the primary fuel for power generation for the first time last year.

«

That graph tells the whole story, really. Renewables are racing ahead. This has significant implications for lots of things – particularly economies such as Russia, and the Middle East. You think we’ve seen political uncertainty? What happens when demand for oil and gas isn’t big enough to sustain those economies?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: did UAE hack Qatar?, Pakistan’s font trouble, HTC sorry over ads, visualise Brexit!, and more


But what do all the logos mean? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Really. Photo by Stewf on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

(Hello, yes, this is the post you were warned might not happen, but it has happened, so there you go.)

A selection of 11 links for you. Ain’t that something? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials • The Washington Post

Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima:

»

The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Officials became aware last week that newly analyzed information gathered by US intelligence agencies confirmed that on May 23, senior members of the UAE government discussed the plan and its implementation. The officials said it remains unclear whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done. The false reports said that the emir, among other things, had called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas.

The hacks and posting took place on May 24, shortly after President Trump completed a lengthy counterterrorism meeting with Persian Gulf leaders in neighboring Saudi Arabia and declared them unified.

Citing the emir’s reported comments, the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt immediately banned all Qatari media. They then broke relations with Qatar and declared a trade and diplomatic boycott,

«

Way back when, we linked here to an early report noting that those at the sheik’s talk didn’t hear him say the things reported on the website.

The timing makes sense; the “US intelligence agencies” monitoring sounds like the NSA doing its job. So did Trump know this was going to happen? If not, he ought to have done, and should have been told by the NSA subsequently, surely.
link to this extract


A solar eclipse could wipe out 9,000 megawatts of power supplies • Bloomberg

Naureen Malik:

»

This rare event, during which the moon will completely obscure the sun, will cast a shadow along a 70-mile-wide (113-kilometer) corridor stretching from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21. Based on a Bloomberg calculation of grid forecasts, more than 9,000 megawatts of solar power may go down. That’s the equivalent of about nine nuclear reactors.


A map of the United States showing the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

The impact is a testament to the ninefold increase in solar installed in the U.S. since 2012 and highlights the risks associated with relying on an intermittent resource such as the sun for power. The onslaught of wind and solar resources is already regularly contributing to wild swings in power supplies across grids, sending wholesale electricity prices below zero on some days.

On Thursday, PJM Interconnection LLC, operator of the nation’s largest power grid covering parts of the eastern U.S., estimated the eclipse could take out as much as 2,500 megawatts of solar generation on its system from about 1:30 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. North Carolina and New Jersey may bear the brunt because so many panels are installed in those states. PJM said rooftop solar panels will account for 80% of the anticipated outages.

«

I’ve heard that the earth completely obscures the sun for many hours a day, too, yet power supplies have generally managed to cope. This is a great attempt to connect the solar eclipse with solar power. It’s also desperate.
link to this extract


Laundry Day – Care Symbol Reader on the App Store

Jan Plesek:

»

This app will help you with your laundry. You can scan your laundry tags and app will tell you how to wash your clothes. It works like magic, but no, it is a technology!

«

I love the idea of this app. Because some of those things really are so incomprehensible.
link to this extract


Will the death of US retail be the next Big Short? • FT

Robin Wigglesworth has a long read on this:

»

Private equity firms and hedge funds that specialise in corporate upheaval — so-called distressed debt investors that snap up struggling companies, taking them over in a restructuring and hopefully engineering a recovery — are largely shunning traditional retail, wary of the immense challenges, according to restructuring advisers.

Victor Khosla, founder and senior managing partner of Strategic Value Partners, a $6bn distressed debt hedge fund, says the list of troubled retailers his firm now monitors is “extraordinarily long”, but he is staying well away.

“Trying to figure out the bottom is hard. We have spent a lot of energy understanding these businesses, and have concluded that the vast majority of them are uninvestable,” he says. “Many of these were great businesses at some point in time, but the internet and changing consumer habits have destroyed them.”

Some retail chief executives who have managed to build relatively successful digital operations complain that their share prices are too low and are unfairly punished for the broader industry malaise. That may be, but “I remember hearing homebuilders say the same in 2006”, one hedge fund manager recalls, pointing out that even for traditional retailers the shift will be painful, given that people tend to make less impulsive purchases on the internet.

“A lot of incidental consumption doesn’t happen online. Most people don’t wander the digital aisles,” he says. A dollar spent in a shop in practice only translates to 80-90 cents online, even though costs are lower. Data released on Friday showed that core retail sales in June fell for a second month running for the first time since early 2015.

«

It’s a terrific piece. You’ve heard about the impending death of US retail; this puts in the essential numbers. It might not be the next big short, but it’s a short, as one hedge fund manager puts it.
link to this extract


Remembering Liu Xiaobo: analyzing censorship of the death of Liu Xiaobo on WeChat and Weibo • The Citizen Lab

Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Jeffrey Knockel, Blake Miller, Jason Q. Ng, Lotus Ruan, Lokman Tsui, and Ruohan Xiong:

»

The scope of censorship of keywords and images on WeChat related to Liu Xiaobo expanded greatly after his death. Our analysis of WeChat keyword-based censorship shows that after his death messages containing his name in English and in both simplified and traditional Chinese are blocked. His death is also the first time we see image filtering in one-to-one chat, in addition to image filtering in group chats and WeChat moments.

Sina Weibo maintains a ban on searches for Liu Xiaobo’s name in English and Chinese (both simplified and traditional). However, since his passing, his given name (Xiaobo) alone is enough to trigger censorship, showing increased censorship on the platform and a recognition that his passing is a particularly sensitive event.

Based on an initial analysis of Weibo’s suggested search keywords, we surmise that there continues to be genuine user interest in producing and finding Liu-related content using alternative keywords.

«

link to this extract


HTC deals with backlash over pop-up ads on keyboard • BBC News

»

Phone-maker HTC says it will fix an “error” that let advertisements pop up on the keyboard on some of its phones.

Many users expressed anger online that ad banners had started appearing above the touchscreen keyboard while they were typing.

HTC’s latest smartphones are sold with a third-party keyboard called TouchPal pre-installed as the default. The free version of TouchPal does usually show ads, but HTC said it was unintended on its devices.

HTC phones run the Android operating system, which lets people download and install a variety of third-party keyboards so that they can customise their typing experience.

Android comes with a default touchscreen keyboard built-in, but many companies including Google and BlackBerry design their own.

Other phone makers, including HTC, pre-install a third party keyboard such as Swiftkey or TouchPal. Criticising the software, TouchPal user Selina wrote: “It used to be good but recently ads keep popping up when I’m in the middle of something and it’s really inconvenient and annoying.”

Others were less kind. “I am done with your junk app forever,” said Ramtin. “The way you show your junk ads whenever I want to write something is the most stupid and annoying way of advertising ever. You don’t care about anything other than money.”

«

The followup to yesterday’s link. “Control your core technologies” demonstrates that keyboards are actually a core technology.
link to this extract


Where are industry eyes on Brexit? • Visual.ONS

»

As Brexit negotiations progress, the staff and leaders of British industry will be keeping a keen eye on developments.

The EU is the UK’s biggest single trading partner: it accounted for 48% of goods exports from the UK and 39% of services exports in 2016.

And some industries will have a particular focus on negotiations – given the value of their exports to the EU – such as British carmakers and finance companies.

The EU also helps fund scientific research and development. Its regulations govern areas like British agriculture and there are more than two million EU nationals working in the UK, their employers ranging from hotels and restaurants to public services.

While the outcomes of Brexit – whether positive, neutral or negative for different businesses – will not be known for some time, analysis from the ONS shows where various industries are concentrated.

This gives a clearer insight into parts of the country that may have a particular interest in the Brexit debate, because they are home to a concentration of industry or industries which have most at stake when the terms surrounding access to the single market, the free movement of labour, levels of funding and existing EU regulations are discussed.

«

Useful visualisation – which might have been more useful pre-vote.
link to this extract


Content isn’t king • Benedict Evans

On how we now have multi-sided markets where “exclusives” don’t really work any more:

»

You pay an average of $700 or so every two years (i.e. $30/month) and Apple gives you a phone. Buy an Android instead and you lose access to the (hypothetical) great Apple television service. This is why people argue that Apple should buy Netflix. From a pure M&A perspective, buying Netflix and immediately limiting its business to Apple devices would halve its value – why buy a business and fire half the customers? Buying it without such a restriction would have no strategic value – Apple would just be buying marketing and revenue. But as Amazon has shown, you don’t have to buy Netflix – they’re not the only people who can buy and commission great TV shows. 

A question here, though, is how well a TV service, perhaps with a stand-alone monthly subscription, as for Apple Music, maps to an 18-30 month handset replacement cycle. Suppose Apple created the next huge hit show next spring and made it exclusive to its devices: very well, but how many smartphone users will be making an upgrade decision in the middle of watching the show, and how many will be deciding between an iPhone and Android 3 or 7 or 10 or 11 months later? How much does the archive matter? 

Perhaps a deeper question, setting aside the purely strategic calculations, is that Apple has always preferred a very asset-light approach to things that are outside its core skills. It didn’t create a record label, or an MVNO, and it didn’t create a credit card for Apple Pay – it works with partners on the existing rails as much as possible (even the upcoming Apple Pay P2P service uses a partner bank). So, Apple has hired some star producers and will presumably be commissioning some shows, with what counts as play money when you have a few hundred billion of cash. But I’m not sure Apple would want to take on what it would mean to have a complete bouquet of hundreds of its own shows. That would be a different company. 

If and when Apple does go back to southern California, meanwhile, it does so with nothing like the kind of negotiating power that it had in iPod days – Amazon and Netflix (if not also Google and Facebook) have seen to that. But that doesn’t mean that content companies have much more power either.

«

link to this extract


SEC files insider trading charges against research scientist aiming to avoid SEC detection • SEC.gov

»

The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced insider trading charges against a research scientist who allegedly searched the internet for “how sec detect unusual trade” before making a trade that the agency flagged as suspicious through data analysis.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that Fei Yan loaded up on stocks and options in advance of two corporate acquisitions late last year based on confidential information obtained from his wife, an associate at a law firm that worked on the deals. 

According to the SEC’s complaint, Yan made approximately $120,000 in illicit profits by selling his holdings in Mattress Firm Holding Corp. and Stillwater Mining Company following public announcements that they would be acquired by other companies.

Yan allegedly attempted to conceal his illegal activity by placing the illicit trades in a brokerage account bearing the name of his mother, who lives in China.  Among the internet searches he conducted was “insider trading in an international account.” 

«

Also known as “how to use Google to incriminate yourself”. Though the “Mattress Firm Holding Corp” hardly sounds like the greatest business in the world.
link to this extract


‘Fontgate’: Microsoft, Wikipedia and the scandal threatening the Pakistani PM • The Guardian

Sune Engel Rasmussen and Pádraig Collins:

»

The daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister has become subject of ridicule in her home country after forensic experts cast doubts on documents central to her defence against corruption allegations.

Mariam Nawaz Sharif is under supreme court investigation after the 2016 Panama Papers leak tied her to a purchase of high-end London property acquired through offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands.

The unlikely source of this latest controversy, in a scandal that has gripped Pakistan for more than a year, is a font designed by Microsoft.

Documents claiming that Mariam Nawaz Sharif was only a trustee of the companies that bought the London flats, are dated February 2006, and appear to be typed in Microsoft Calibri.

But the font was only made commercially available in 2007, leading to suspicions that the documents are forged.

Social media users have derided Sharif for this apparent misstep, coining the hashtag #fontgate.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, the Calibri font was developed in 2004 but only reached the general public on 30 January 2007 with the launch of Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Office 2007.

The Wikipedia Calibri page usually receives about 500 visits per day. On July 11 and 12 combined, it received about 150,000.

After users seemingly tried to change the article’s content to say the font was available from 2004, Wikipedia suspended editing on its Calibri page “until July 18 2017, or until editing disputes have been resolved”.

«

Many thanks to Joel, a reader of The Overspill who originally passed on a link about this to me last Wednesday. I passed it on to the Guardian on the same day; this piece appeared last Thursday (but in my remiss way I only just came round to it). I’d like to think Joel’s input has had some influence on world affairs by bringing this to wide attention.

And the best headline: “Calibri row could mean Pakistan is sans Sharif.”
link to this extract


How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap • Financial Times

Lucy Kellaway:

»

The first example I can find comes from 1994 when I wrote an article mocking ugly business jargon, arguing that language had got so stupid that the pendulum must soon swing back and plain talking about business would shortly reassert itself. The words I objected to back then? Global, downsize, marketplace and worst of all, the mathematically nonsensical “110% committed”.

What an innocent age that was.

Fast forward to July 2017, and an entrepreneur sits down to write a blog post about his company. “We are focused 1,000,000% on positive, move forward, actionable efforts to help facilitate change.” When someone sent me this bilge last week, I read it and shrugged.

Over the past two decades, two things have happened. Business bullshit has got a million% more bullshitty, and I’ve stopped predicting a correction in the marketplace. I’m 110% sure there won’t be one.

Not only has production risen in aggregate, the worst individual offenders have gone on surpassing themselves, oblivious to my attempts to shame them into stopping.

Howard Schultz is a champion in the bullshit space. The Starbucks executive chairman has provided me with more material for columns than any other executive alive or dead. Yet he is still at it, and still out-doing himself. Earlier this year, he announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were “delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience”.

In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is “an”. Mr Schultz has brewed up a blend of old and new jargon, the fashionable and the workaday, adding a special topping of his own. “Delivering” and “experience” are grim but not new. “Ultra-premium” is needless word inflation. “Immersive” is fashionable, though ill-advised if you are talking about scalding liquids. The innovation is “coffee-forward”. Sounds fantastic, but what is it?

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: iPhone bug bounties, peak oil fades, HTC’s keyboard ads, DJI’s hacking war, and more


“Cracking end-to-end encryption” might actually be as simple as doing this. (Ignore the date.) Photo by Johan Larsson on Flickr.


Posting note: for personal reasons, it’s possible that the next Overspill posting will be delayed by a day or so. (I can’t presently predict if it will or wont.) If it is, you won’t get tomorrow’s update. (And it won’t be on the website.) If it isn’t, you’ll.. get a post as normal. I realise this is indistinguishable from incompetence. Apologies in advance.


You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

New law would force Facebook and Google to give police access to encrypted messages • The Guardian

»

Under the law, internet companies would have the same obligations as telephone companies to help law enforcement agencies. Police would need warrants to access the communications. [Australian Prime Minister Malcolm] Turnbull said the legislation was necessary to keep pace with advances in technology that could facilitate crime.

“We need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities from the law,” he said.

Asked by reporters how legislation would prevent users simply moving to encryption software not controlled by tech companies, Turnbull said Australian law overrode the laws of mathematics.

“The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only laws that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Turnbull denied the government’s plans involved the use of a “back door” into programs to allow access to encrypted messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

“A back door is typically a flaw in a software program that perhaps the developer of the software program is not aware of, and that somebody who knows about it can exploit,” Turnbull said. “If there are flaws in software programs, obviously, that’s why you get updates on your phone and your computer all the time. So we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about lawful access.”

Pressed on whether the government’s plans meant it would ask companies such as Facebook and Apple to keep a copy of encryption keys used by customers, Turnbull said:

“I’m not a cryptographer, but what we are seeking to do is to secure their assistance. They have to face up to their responsibility. They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with them.”

The attorney general, George Brandis, said the legislation would “impose an obligation upon device manufacturers and service providers to provide appropriate assistance to intelligence and law enforcement on a warranted basis”. It could be used to tackle terrorism, or serious organised crime such as paedophile networks.

«

This isn’t totally absurd. The clue is in Turnbull’s quote about “updates on your phone” and Brandis’s “obligation.. to provide appropriate assistance”. What’s likely to happen is that targeted individuals will receive SIM updates which let the authorities spy on them. Simple as that. If you read the above (and the story) in that light, it becomes feasible – sensible, even. If you think they want to have access to everyone’s encrypted messages all the time, you’re overthinking it. However, that might mean having a supply of the following…
link to this extract


iPhone bugs are too valuable to report to Apple • Motherboard

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

»

Last year, Apple pushed back against the FBI for months as it resisted an order to help the feds break into the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, who killed 14 people and injured 22 in December of 2015. The FBI eventually got into the phone, but not with Apple’s help. Instead, the FBI paid for a costly exploit found by unknown, independent researchers. As The New York Times argued at the time, perhaps one reason hackers had exploits to sell to the FBI was that they had little incentive to report them to Apple instead.

Though the announcement of the program was public, nearly everything else about it has been rolled out with Apple’s typical secrecy. For now, the program is invite-only.

The researchers who received an invite to join have had a chance to earn rewards ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 for bugs in iOS and MacOS, according to Krstic’s talk.

That might sound like a lot of money. But one of the reasons why the researchers we talked to aren’t itching to report bugs is that Apple’s rewards aren’t as high as they could or maybe should be. In the private, gray market, where companies such as Zerodium buy exploits from researchers and sell them to their customers, a method comprised of multiple bugs that can jailbreak the iPhone is valued at $1.5m. Another firm, Exodus Intelligence, offers up to $500,000 for similar iOS exploits. These companies claim to sell only to corporations to help them protect their networks, or to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to help them hack into high-value targets…

…”Apple has to compete with the true value for the bugs they want to buy,” Dan Guido, the CEO of the cybersecurity research firm Trail Of Bits, told me. “They’re trying to buy game-over stuff at $200,000, but it’s just worth more than that.”

In other words, the economics of the bug bounty are just not worth the trouble.

«

Clever story. But what’s the solution for Apple? Let hackers name their price? Outbid whatever the market is offering? (The latter could vary hugely.) Easy to identify the problem, but not the solution.
link to this extract


iOS 11 will expand your iPhone’s NFC capabilities beyond Apple Pay in several ways • Mac Rumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

Apple at WWDC 2017 last month introduced Core NFC, a new iOS 11 framework that enables apps to detect Near Field Communication tags.

Similar to Apple Pay, iPhone users are prompted with a “Ready to Scan” dialog box. After holding the iPhone near an item with an NFC tag, a checkmark displays on screen if a product is detected. An app with Core NFC could then provide users with information about that product contained within the tag.

A customer shopping at a grocery store could hold an iPhone near a box of crackers, for example, and receive detailed information about their nutritional values, price history, recipe ideas, and so forth. Or, at a museum, a visitor could hold an iPhone near an exhibit to receive detailed information about it.

Core NFC will expand the iPhone’s NFC chip capabilities beyond simply Apple Pay in several other ways.

Cybersecurity company WISeKey, for example, today announced that its CapSeal smart tag will now support iPhone thanks to Core NFC. CapSeal smart tags are primarily used for authentication, tracking, and anti-counterfeiting on products like wine bottles. Many other companies offer similar solutions.

«

iPhone 7 upwards only at present.
link to this extract


Remember Peak Oil? Demand may top out before supply does • Bloomberg

Javier Blas:

»

When Bob Dudley, chief executive officer of British oil giant BP Plc, was asked at a recent conference when oil demand will peak, he had a precise answer: June 2, 2042.

The audience at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum burst into laughter, knowing it’s impossible to predict such an event down to the day. But the American executive wasn’t speaking entirely in jest: The most recent edition of BP’s widely scrutinized Energy Outlook has global demand for crude maxing out in 2½ decades, give or take a year. That projection casts a shadow over one of the world’s largest industries, which until recently was far more concerned with boosting supply. The advent of electric cars, the fight against climate change, and slowing economic growth in China is dampening the world’s once boundless appetite for crude. Carmaker Volvo AB announced on July 5 that it will manufacture only electric or hybrid models from 2019 onward. Three days later, France said it would ban sales of cars with diesel and gasoline engines starting in 2040.

«

As a date for “Peak Oil Demand”, 2040 seems reasonable. And it’s not that far away.
link to this extract


Scholars cry foul at their inclusion on list of academics paid by Google • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Chris Quintana:

»

Last week an advocacy group published what it called a list of scholars who have received money from Google and who have written papers that supported its interests, sometimes without disclosing that apparent conflict of interest. Sarah T. Roberts said she doesn’t understand why she was on the list.

Sure, she told The Chronicle, she was a Google fellow in 2009, but that meant a $7,000 award to cover her expenses during a 10-week stint working in Washington, D.C., for the American Library Association.

Why that 2009 fellowship would be relevant to a 2015 paper on information privacy — in which Ms. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, was listed as the fourth author — is not clear to her. More important, she said, she didn’t receive any money from the technology giant in connection to that paper. And if the advocacy group’s concern was that she had benefited from Google in the past, that information is on her curriculum vitae.

“What else would they like me to do?” she asked. “I think it’s pretty irresponsible.”

Ms. Roberts is one of a handful of scholars who told The Chronicle on Wednesday that they felt the Campaign for Accountability, the group that issued the report, had included them unfairly in its list of academics who had received money from Google in connection to research that could be used to defend the company’s business practices.

«

Seems like the Campaign for Accountability needs to get in touch with the Campaign for Context. This story is unravelling rather quickly.
link to this extract


Facebook will start showing ads inside Marketplace, its Craigslist-style section for browsing used goods • Recode

Kurt Wagner:

»

Facebook has found another place to show advertisements to its users.

The company announced on Friday that it will start running ads inside Marketplace, its Craigslist-style hub where users can buy and sell used goods.

The ads are just a test for now, which means only a small percentage of US Facebook users will see them. Facebook is not even selling ads specifically for Marketplace just yet — instead, it will take existing News Feed ads and put them inside the Marketplace tab free of charge to advertisers, as a way to experiment.

«

I can’t imagine anything that.. makes more sense. People look for stuff and you show them ads about stuff? Worked out OK for Google.
link to this extract


Implementing Webmentions • All In The Head

Drew McLellan:

»

In a world before social media, a lot of online communities existed around blog comments. The particular community I was part of – web standards – was all built up around the personal websites of those involved.

As social media sites gained traction, those communities moved away from blog commenting systems. Instead of reacting to a post underneath the post, most people will now react with a URL someplace else. That might be a tweet, a Reddit post, a Facebook emission, basically anywhere that combines an audience with the ability to comment on a URL.

Whether you think that’s a good thing or not isn’t really worth debating – it’s just the way it is now, things change, no big deal. However, something valuable that has been lost is the ability to see others’ reactions when viewing a post. Comments from others can add so much to a post, and that overview is lost when the comments exist elsewhere.

Webmention is a W3C Recommendation that solves a big part of this. It describes a system for one site to notify another when it links to it. It’s similar in concept to Pingback for those who remember that, just with all the lessons learned from Pingback informing the design.

«

I remember how pingback got turned into a spam problem so bad that most people – and stop me if this bit sounds familiar in this whole debate – turned it off. Yup, any system that scales and allows anyone to contribute will have a spam problem. It will also, now, have a “mad troll” problem, if one thinks the two are different.

The problem with comments is not in systems for allowing comments. It’s in what people want to put into their comments: most has zero value, even to the commenter.
link to this extract


The standard keyboard on the HTC 10 has begun showing ads : mildlyinfuriating • Reddit

»

User WagnerianDoorbell: “Ads are probably based off all the words you’ve entered with that keyboard.

“From an advertiser’s perspective, having access to the full log of everything entered on a system’s keyboard is like the holy grail of profiling data.”

«

Utterly dismaying. Though given how poorly HTC is doing, it might think this is a good idea. In reality, you’d expect if word gets out sufficiently then it will hasten its end.
link to this extract


DJI is locking down its drones against a growing army of DIY hackers • Motherboard

Ben Sullivan:

»

On YouTube, Facebook, drone forums, and Slack groups around the internet, hackers have published instructions for altering the firmware on DJI’s drones, leading to a rising number of drone pilots who have circumvented flight restrictions imposed by DJI on its products. In recent days the company has updated its software to render these hacks moot, and has started removing vulnerable versions of its firmware from its servers in an attempt to regain control of its drones.

DJI told me on Friday it will continue to investigate cases of unauthorized modification and that it will “issue software updates to address them without further announcement.”

“Unauthorized modification of a DJI drone is not recommended, as it can cause unstable flight behavior that could make operating the drone unsafe,” Victor Wang, DJI’s technology security director, told me in a statement. “DJI is not responsible for the performance of a modified drone and we strongly condemn any user who attempts to modify their drone for illegal or unsafe use.”

“This is the beginning of the fight for DJI to retain control of these aircraft,” consumer drone expert Kevin Finisterre, who this week developed and released his own DJI exploit, told me in an email. “End users are more invigorated than ever with the desire to emancipate their drone.”

«

A very strange arms race. But given the fact that they’ve been used by ISIS in battle, this is one of those fights that DJI looks likely to lose.
link to this extract


Essential marketing vice president leaves after seven months • Business Insider

Steve Kovach:

»

Brian Wallace, Essential’s VP of marketing, has left the company, he confirmed to Business Insider on Friday.Wallace is now CMO at i.am+, a “connected lifestyle” company founded by musician will.i.am. 

Wallace’s move is the latest sign of turmoil at Essential. Wallace joined Essential in December after running marketing for the augmented reality startup Magic Leap. Before that, he worked at Samsung and helped put together the iconic “Next Big Thing” campaign that propelled Samsung’s mobile business in the US.

Wallace isn’t the only major departure at Essential. Andy Fouché, who is listed as the company’s head of communications on its website, left recently as well, he told Business Insider in an email last month. However, Fouché also described himself as an advisor to the company. He also worked with Wallace as the head of communications at Magic Leap. Kenzo Hing, Essential’s head of product marketing, will be running communications in the meantime.

Hing did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The departures are not a good look for Essential.

«

I can believe that a startup might have quite a bit of churn as you discover whether people are really right for this stuff, but losing your marketing bod to Will.i.am? That’s really got to burn.
link to this extract


It took nine years, but Bitly turned short web links into a real company • Recode

»

Peter Kafka: here’s a story that won’t get much attention: A modest success for a company that once had much grander aspirations.

That would be Bitly, a company that lets marketers and other businesses keep tabs on customers as they move around the web by generating short, trackable URL links.

Spectrum Equity just bought a majority stake in the nine-year-old company for $63m. A press release doesn’t spell out the specifics but I’m told Spectrum now owns a significant majority of Bitly, and that the new deal values the company below the $100m valuation of its last raise, back in 2012.

In other words, maybe the investors who put a reported $29m into Bitly prior to the Spectrum deal got their money back. But they certainly didn’t make much on this.

«

Amazing that a company which does web shortening can be valued at all, but perhaps there’s some value in aggregating links. But $63m worth?
link to this extract


Trump’s MAGAnomics is here. And his team repeated Obamanomics’ big mistake • The Washington Post

Heather Long:

»

the architects of MAGAnomics are making the same error that the masterminds of Obamanomics made: They’re promising far more than they are likely to deliver. Even worse, they are putting a very concrete target out there: 3% GDP growth or bust.

Trump’s already off track. Growth this year is shaping up to be the same — or even worse — than under Obama. Expectations for the coming years are not much better.

On the same day Mulvaney published his MAGAnomics commentary, the Wall Street Journal ran a story with the headline “Forecasters lower economic outlook amid congressional gridlock.” Economists surveyed by the Journal predict 2.4% growth in 2018 and just 1.9% in 2019.

Of course, this is not the first time the Trump team has vowed “huge” and “spectacular” economic growth. Trump himself has said he can achieve 5% growth (annual growth has not exceeded 5% since 1984). The White House website promises 4% a year expansion and 25 million new jobs, the most of any U.S. president.

Trump’s team should have learned from Obama: Be careful with concrete economic promises.

Obama spent a lot of his early days in the White House in 2009 trying to generate support for a big stimulus proposal by promising it would create millions of jobs. His team told the nation that unemployment was unlikely to go above 8% if the stimulus passed, part of detailed projections of the results they expected their plan to deliver. In reality, unemployment hit 10% a few months later.

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: hacking US votes, crypto-tulips, spool that thread!, signing gloves, and more


Radiohead’s new old 1990s album is enhanced with something for this 1980s wonder, the ZX Spectrum. Photo by Alessandro Gussu on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

American democracy is now under siege by both cyber-espionage and GOP voter suppression • The Nation

Ari Berman:

»

In September 2010, the District of Columbia unveiled a pilot project to enable overseas residents and people serving in the military to vote over the Internet, and invited users to test the system. Within 36 hours, University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman and his team were able to hack into it, flipping votes to candidates named after famous computers, like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and playing the Michigan fight song, “The Victors,” after every recorded vote. Amazingly, it took two days for election officials in DC to notice the hack and take the system down. The pilot project was eventually scrapped.

Though online voting remains a distant prospect in American politics, this wasn’t the first election system that Halderman hacked. On June 21, 2017, he testified before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in a hearing on “Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Elections.” “My conclusion,” Halderman told the committee, “is that our highly computerized election infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage, and even to cyber-attacks that could change votes.”

“Dr. Halderman, you’re pretty good at hacking voting machines, by your testimony,” Senator Angus King of Maine observed. “Do you think the Russians are as good as you?”

“The Russians have the resources of a nation-state,” Halderman replied. “I would say their capabilities would significantly exceed mine.”

It is now clear that Russian interference in the 2016 elections went far beyond hacking Democratic National Committee e-mails; it struck at the heart of America’s democratic process. “As of right now, we have evidence of election-related systems in 21 states that were tar-geted,” Jeanette Manfra, the chief cyber-security official at the Department of Homeland Security, testified at the Senate hearing.

«

Strangely, nobody on the winning side (the GOP) seems overly concerned about this.
link to this extract


Radiohead album hides an app that only runs on an ’80s computer • Engadget

Tom Regan:

»

In the age of the hipster, dust-covered and irrelevant mediums like the vinyl and cassette tape have slowly been given a new lease of life. Now, thanks to Radiohead, it looks like popular British computer the ZX Spectrum might be the next 80s relic to come back into fashion. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s genre-bending opus– OK Computer –Radiohead has released a £100 commemorative special edition of the album, entitled OKNOTOK.

As well as containing a beautiful looking art book, a collection of Thom Yorke’s notes and the expected limited edition vinyl of the album, the package also comes with a classic C90 cassette. While the vast majority of the 90-minute tape houses a collection of rare demos from the band, the last two minutes treat listeners to a bizarre high-pitched frequency. Quickly identified by Redditors as the grating greeting of the ZX Spectrum, one passionate YouTuber has cleverly EQ’d those digital squawks and squeaks to perfectly match the aging computer’s audio language.

Running those EQ’d files through a ZX Spectrum emulator, the software pops up with the names of all the band members, dating the software back to the 19th December 1996.

«

Here you go then.


link to this extract


Crypto-tulips • Coppolacomment

Frances Coppola:

»

There are three key stages in the lifecycle of a financial bubble:

The “Free Lunch” period. A long, slow buildup of price distortion, during which investors convince themselves that rising prices are entirely justified by fundamentals, even though it is apparent to (rational) observers that they are buying castles built on sand.

The “This is nuts, when’s the crash?” period. Everyone knows prices are far out of line with fundamentals, but they carry on buying in the irrational belief they can get out before the crash they all know is coming. Speculators pile in, hoping to make a quick profit. Prices spike. 

The “Every man for himself” period (sorry, FT, I couldn’t find a reference for this one). Prices crash as everyone runs for the exit. This can happen a number of times, separated by brief periods of stability when everyone congratulates themselves on a lucky escape. But they are wrong. The ship is sinking. 

This is what the three stages look like, charted: 

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that there are no tulips in this chart. That is because financial crashes don’t have to involve tulips. This one above, of course, is stocks. 

«

But cryptocurrencies are now heading from stage 2 to 3, she suggests. Not just bitcoin – all of them.
link to this extract


Spooler • Tiny Subversions

Darius Kazemi:

»

Enter the URL of the last tweet of a Twitter thread, press “Spool it!”, and the thread will appear as a blog post here. It only works for a single person’s thread, not replies from other people. This could take up to two seconds per tweet in the thread, so be prepared to wait.

«

This is a neat tool, to be added to the long list of neat tools around Twitter; but now we’re in the times of 100-tweet threads (looking at you, Seth Abramson), it turns out to be important. A future improvement might be to find the whole thread from any point in it.

Anyhow, a good one to bookmark.
link to this extract


Designing the perfect date and time picker • Smashing Magazine

Vitaly Friedman:

»

What could be so difficult about designing a decent date picker? Basically, we just need an input field and an icon that represents a calendar clearly enough, and once the user clicks on that icon, we pop up a little overlay with the days lined up in rows. Right?

Well, not every date picker fits every interface, just like not every interface actually needs a date picker. But when a date picker is required, quite often it’s just a bit too tedious and annoying to specify that one date, and too often it produces irrelevant results or even a zero-results page, although just a few minor refinements would make it much easier to use.

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time working with various companies trying out various approaches and studying them in usability tests. This series of articles is a summary of observations and experiments made throughout that time. Over the course of months, we’ll be exploring everything from carousels to car configurators.

«

Everyone has come across an infuriating date picker, and a wonderful one, and wondered why the people who built the first didn’t use the second. This article demonstrates why it’s not quite so easy.

They’ve also previously looked at the design of accordions, if that’s more your thing.
link to this extract


Morgan Stanley: ‘Bitcoin acceptance is virtually zero and shrinking’ • Business Insider

Frank Chaparro:

»

A research note out Wednesday by a group of analysts at Morgan Stanley led by James E Faucette said “bitcoin acceptance is virtually zero and shrinking,” despite its impressive appreciation. 

According to the bank, last year bitcoin was accepted at five of of the top 500 online merchants. Today, only three of the top 500 merchants accept bitcoin as a form of payment. 

“The disparity between virtually no merchant acceptance and bitcoin’s rapid appreciation is striking,” the analysts wrote. 

The investment bank outlined three reasons for the decline in bitcoin acceptance among merchants. 

The first reason has to do with the appreciation of bitcoin. Most owners of the cryptocurrency are unwilling to let go of their holdings to pay for goods because they expect the price of bitcoin to go up. This point underpins the bank’s thesis that bitcoin mainly functions as an investment vehicle rather than fiat currency that you could spend on goods and services.

Issues with bitcoin’s scalability, which has made transactions slow and expensive, is another reason the bank thinks merchants find bitcoin unappealing as a form of payment.  

Finally, there has been a lack of pressure from the people who run the bitcoin infrastructure, according to the bank, to push merchants to accept bitcoin as a form of payment. 

«

So it might only be useful for peer-to-peer money transfer, not as a broad currency.
link to this extract


Glove turns sign language into text for real-time translation • New Scientist

Timothy Revell:

»

A new glove developed at the University of California, San Diego, can convert the 26 letters of American Sign Language (ASL) into text on a smartphone or computer screen. Because it’s cheaper and more portable than other automatic sign language translators on the market, it could be a game changer. People in the deaf community will be able to communicate effortlessly with those who don’t understand their language. It may also one day fine-tune our control of robots.

ASL is a language all of its own, but few people outside the deaf community speak it. For many signing is their only language, as learning written English, for example, can be difficult without having the corresponding sounds to go with it.

“For thousands of people in the UK, sign language is their first language,” says Jesal Vishnuram, the technology research manager at the charity Action on Hearing Loss. “Many have little or no written English. Technology like this will completely change their lives.”

When they need to communicate with people who are not versed in ASL, their options are limited. In the UK, someone who is deaf is entitled to a sign language translator at work or when visiting a hospital, but at a train station, for example, it can be incredibly difficult to communicate with people who don’t sign. In this situation a glove that can translate for them would make life much easier.

The device consists of a standard sports glove kitted out with nine flexible strain sensors that are placed over different knuckles. When a user bends their fingers or thumb, the sensors stretch, and their electrical resistance goes up. The software uses these signals to work out the configuration of the hand.

Motion sensors on the back of the glove work out whether the hand is still or in motion, a necessary step to differentiating similar letters. For example, both the signs for “i” and “j” involve extending just the little finger. But for “i” the hand remains still, whereas to signify “j” you rotate your hand 180 degrees. The motion sensors detect these differences.

«

link to this extract


PepsiCo decries same consumer trends battering retail • AdAge

»

On Tuesday, PepsiCo Inc. CEO Indra Nooyi echoed what companies like Target and retail analysts have long been saying: More spending is happening online — and for experiences, health and wellness instead of possessions.

PepsiCo’s comments on consumer trends overshadowed the Purchase, N.Y., company’s second-quarter results and have consequences for the whole consumer staples sector, which has underperformed leisure and recreation stocks this year.

Customers are “seeking more premium experiences and at the same time seeking value. And across the spectrum, consumers continue to be interested in health and wellness but with differing definitions,” Nooyi said on a conference call with analysts.

As with retailers, consumer-products giants are adjusting to the world of Amazon and delivery startups. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. spent decades building a distribution system that serves vending machines and brick-and-mortar stores, but they’re still in the beginning stages of selling products directly to customers online.

«

Ironic little note if PepsiCo were to suffer like physical retail. Probably won’t happen, but given its contribution to the ill-health of nations through excessive sugar and carbonic acid, it would be a beneficial side-effect of the internet-isation of everything. Though what would basement-dwellers quaff?
link to this extract


SoundCloud sinks as leaks say layoffs buy little time • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

»

A tense scene unfolded yesterday as user-generated, music-streaming service SoundCloud held an all-hands meeting to explain to employees why it suddenly had to lay off 40% of its staff last week.

Exiting team members wanted to know why they weren’t warned, while those who survived the cuts wanted assurance that the cost reductions would keep the company afloat for the long-run.
But as security ominously filed into SoundCloud’s meeting rooms at its offices around the world during the all-hands video conference broadcast from its Berlin headquarters, the startup’s staff discovered they wouldn’t be getting the answers they wanted. Instead, sources at SoundCloud tell TechCrunch that founders Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss confessed the layoffs only saved the company enough money to have runway “until Q4” — which begins in just 50 days.

That seems to conflict with the statement Ljung released alongside the layoffs, which noted that, “With more focus and a need to think about the long term, comes tough decisions.” The company never mentioned how short its cash would still last. 

«

link to this extract


Traditional PC market fares slightly better than expectations as component shortage pressures ease • IDC

»

Worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook, workstation) totaled 60.5 million units in the second quarter of 2017 (2Q17), posting a year-on-year decline of 3.3%, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. The results tilted just above the previous forecast that called for a decline of 3.9%, and hewed to the expectation that unlike past seasonal patterns of significant positive sequential growth, second quarter volume showed only a modest uptick from the first quarter.

Whereas one factor affecting shipments during the past several quarters was an inventory buildup caused by shortages of key components such as SSD (Solid State Drive), the second quarter operated under less harsh constraints, though in some instances component shortages still played a role in driving shipment dynamics. Moreover, as expected, the increased bill of materials (BOM) cost due to the shortage also began to impact the final price of systems, which was also factored into IDC’s original assumption of inhibiting shipments.

From a geographic perspective, mature markets generally outperformed emerging markets, with Asia/Pacific (excluding Japan) and Latin America in particular showing weakness, though Latin America did outperform IDC’s original forecast. The U.S. posted just a slight decline but otherwise also pulled ahead of forecast in part due to Chromebook activity. Japan again posted positive growth, in part against the backdrop of tough market conditions in 2015 through the first half of 2016.

“Amid some unevenness in market trends across the regions, the global PC market has continued to trend toward stabilization,” said Jay Chou, research manager, IDC Worldwide Personal Computing Device Tracker.

«

I love how it’s “trending toward stabilisation” as the sales keep dropping year-on-year. Apple is now 4th biggest vendor worldwide (though less than half as large as Dell). Acer has dropped out of the top five.

Gartner’s view is even gloomier, with a 4.3% fall, though its total is slightly higher – 61.1m. But it says Chromebook sales grew 38% in 2016 – miles ahead of the PC market. But “not a PC replacement yet”, according to Gartner’s analysts.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Razer, the PC gaming company, is based in Singapore (not Hong Kong – that’s where it’s seeking a public listing).

Start Up: Vertu dies (but will live?), Android misconceptions, the lawbot cometh, Razer’s optimism, and more


Guess whose hotels have had their booking and payment systems hacked three times since 2014? Photo by sandy kemsley on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

British luxury phonemaker Vertu wound up with loss of 200 jobs • FT

Nic Fildes:

»

The liquidation of a company that made the world’s most expensive handsets comes months after a last-ditch attempt to revive the business by reducing the cost of its non-customised handsets from £10,000 and above to between £4,000 and £7,000.

The collapse of the business follows its sale in March to Murat Hakan Uzan, a Turkish exile based in Paris. The company was previously owned by an obscure Chinese company called Godin Holdings, and was rumoured to be on the brink of administration last year. The company failed to file its 2015 accounts, which raised alarm bells before the sale to Mr Uzan.

Mr Uzan inherited a business which he later discovered had an accounting deficit of £128m, according to a Daily Telegraph report. The manufacturing arm was placed into administration, before he tried to buy back the business for £1.9m — a plan that failed this week.

Mr Uzan will, however, keep the Vertu brand, technology and design licences. He plans to rebuild the luxury phonemaker, according to a person familiar with the situation.

«

Not sure that Vertu is worth rebuilding, to be honest.
link to this extract


Misconceptions about Android — Tech Specs

Daniel Matte has a few points to make, of which this is probably the key one:

»

Malware on Android is often portrayed as an ever-growing, constant crisis. While Android does have tons of major security concerns, the overall issue is still hugely overstated.

Firstly, the term malware can mean absolutely anything. The vast majority of stories about mobile security spread FUD and sensationalism, to the detriment of readers. I won’t pretend to be a security expert, but even imperfect sandboxing probably goes a long way compared to the completely unsandboxed traditional PC application environments. It doesn’t seem clear to me whether Android or macOS is more secure overall, for example. As with many things, it probably depends.

There is however an extreme case: the Chinese market. Because Android is out of Google’s control in China, the OS genuinely is a security nightmare in the country. I remember waiting for a flight at the airport in Beijing and watching with amusement as some seemingly low-threat app started downloading itself onto my phone over the air. All I did was merely have Wi-Fi on; I hadn’t attempted to connect to any access points.

«

You should also note his points about force-quitting Android apps, touch latency, and why people perceive its scrolling and similar as “janky”.
link to this extract


Hackers have been stealing credit card numbers from Trump’s hotels for months • The Washington Post

Abha Bhattarai:

»

Guests at 14 Trump properties, including hotels in Washington, New York and Vancouver, have had their credit card information exposed, marking the third time in as many years that a months-long security breach has affected customers of the chain of luxury hotels.

The latest instance occurred between August 2016 and March 2017, according to a notice on the company’s website, and included guest names, addresses and phone numbers, as well as credit card numbers and expiration dates. The breach took place on the systems of Sabre Hospitality Solutions, a reservation booking service used by Trump Hotels, but did not compromise the Trump Hotels’ systems.

“The privacy and protection of our guests’ information is a matter we take very seriously,” the notice said, adding that Trump Hotels was notified of the breach on June 5. Trump Hotels declined to comment beyond what was posted in the notice.

«

First infiltrated in May 2014; malware installed on networks. Informed of the breach in June 2015; posted a notice on website four months later (August 2015). Hacked again in November 2015. And in March 2016.

Sure the details about who has been going to these hotels will all get posted on Wikileaks soon, right?
link to this extract


Joshua Browder’s parking ticket bot is expanding to 1000 areas of law • Business Insider

Shona Ghosh:

»

Lawyers can be really expensive, and for small disputes like fighting your landlord, claiming lost luggage for an airline, or a parking ticket, it can feel like a fight isn’t worth it.

Enter DoNotPay, the world’s first robot lawyer, built by young British entrepreneur Joshua Browder. DoNotPay hit headlines in early 2016 after then successfully appealing £2 million in parking tickets. The bot then expanded to help refugees, and now it’s expanding into 1,000 different areas of law in all 50 US states and across the UK.

According to MarketLine research, the US legal market alone is worth $292 billion (£227 billion).

Now Browder’s bot can help you ask for more parental leave, dispute nuisance calls, fight a fraudulent purchase on your credit card, and a host of other issues.

“I originally started DoNotPay two years ago to fight my own parking tickets and became an accidental witness to how lawyers are exploiting human misery,” said Browder. “From discrimination in Silicon Valley to the tragedy in London with an apartment building setting on fire, it seems the only people benefitting from injustice are a handful of lawyers.

“I hope that DoNotPay, by helping with these issues and many more, will ultimately give everyone the same legal power as the richest in society.”

«

Browder thinks it could be helpful to get landlords and developers to follow “basic safety regulations” too. It’s positive thinking, though landlords are pretty good at ignoring letters of all sorts.
link to this extract


Microsoft to close Surface Hub manufacturing plant in Oregon • Petri

Brad Sams:

»

Microsoft has informed the state of Oregon that it intends to close location where it has built the Surface Hub. The plant was located in Wilsonville and will impact 124 jobs in that region.

In a letter to the state, as noted by OregonLive, Microsoft will close the plant with 61 job cuts coming on September 8 with 63 jobs being cut the following months. The reason Microsoft had a facility in the state is that it was part of Perceptive Pixel that the company acquired in July of 2012 and likely used that team to help build the Surface Hub.

As for the future of the Surface Hub, I don’t think this has much to do with the long-term outlook for that product. Early indications about the sales pipeline was that Microsoft could not make enough of them and feedback from users has been positive.

Further, references to Surface Hub 2 have shown up in some internal documentation from Microsoft which makes it appear that another device is on the horizon. As such, I do not think this is the end of the line for the Surface Hub.

When the company announced where they were going to build the Surface Hub, it was a point of pride for the company as they were making the device in the United States; an unusual move by modern standards. But, here we are, with the company closing down the facility as they likely found that they can produce the device elsewhere at a lower price point.

«

Going to guess that “elsewhere” is outside the US. Shh!
link to this extract


Facebook’s Messenger ads are bad and must be destroyed • TechCrunch

Devin Coldewey:

»

Why so big? Did the ad department say they couldn’t sell anything that didn’t completely take over the app? Did they not want to ask for smaller assets after asking for ones at this size to begin with? Do they think people like ads as much as ad people do?

At least now there’s only one ad instead of a series you’re invited to explore. I’m guessing engagement with the carousel was abysmal — who would think, hmm, not enough ads in my chat feed?

To be fair, even good ads interrupt the user’s experience a little. But this is just way too much. As soon as you open the app, smack dab in the middle of the most-used main interface: an ad that takes up more of the screen than the content you opened the app to access. That’s intolerable.

I asked Facebook what its test users had said about the ads. A representative told me that “We monitored people’s engagement closely throughout the initial test and the results were promising…” and that “since we began testing in Australia and Thailand we have put people’s experience first, and we will continue to prioritize this as we roll out the Messenger ads test further.”

The idea that these ads resulted from putting people’s experience first is, of course, ridiculous. If Facebook were doing that, it would never have snipped Messenger off from the main app in the first place, much less burdened it with huge ads.

When I asked again what the users’ feedback had actually been, I received no response. I also asked if users could expect to see ads just one time, or every few threads, or what — but no info on that either. We’ll find out soon, but I’m guessing they’re keeping their options open on that one.

Is it possible to make ads that fit on a mobile screen alongside your messaging content? Sure! In fact, I would bet that Facebook looked at several designs that did just that and rejected them.

«

Gotta love the optimism of the marketing people who told the engineer designing that popup to include one saying “This ad is useful”. This probably happens as often as people winning the lottery twice in a row.
link to this extract


American tech companies are so afraid of offending Indians that they’re censoring all their products • Buzzfeed

Pranav Dixit:

»

“Western companies trying to expand in India are being overcautious because of the huge investments they are making in the country,” Prithwiraj Mukherjee, professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, told BuzzFeed News. “They don’t want to risk offending anyone’s sentiments in a diverse country like India.”

The country is a crucial market for Silicon Valley: There are now more internet users in India than there are people in the United States — and millions more will come online in the next few years. But as American tech companies pour billions into the country, they’re fumbling as they attempt to appeal to India’s already-online, Snapchat-savvy, English-speaking, Beyoncé-listening, urban millennials, while also trying to win over the country’s comparatively conservative millions.

Amazon Prime Video launched in India in December 2016, and was immediately blasted by angry Indian customers on Twitter for proactively censoring many TV shows and movies, including its own productions like Transparent. Worse, the censorship was arbitrary. Some nudity, like a sex scene a couple of minutes into the pilot of Transparent, was blurred out. In another instance, Amazon chopped one episode of its car show, The Grand Tour, in half to remove a plotline involving a car made of animal carcasses with a windshield of cow innards, presumably to avoid offending religious Hindus, who consider cows sacred. But most of Californication, a series well-known for its gratuitous nudity, survived Amazon’s airbrushing.

«

One has to feel this makes a change from just assuming that whatever’s right in the US is right in another country, though? India is a gigantic market, and reactions can be intense.
link to this extract


Razer made PC hardware cool again. Just not profitable • Bloomberg

Tim Culpan on the Hong Kong-based PC company whose early investors include Intel and Foxconn:

»

In the past two years, Razer’s revenue growth averaged a mere 11.5%. That’s nice if you want to compare it with Acer and Asustek, which both posted declines, but isn’t the kind of top-line growth investors look for in a pre-IPO tech company.

And at least those two posted operating profits last year. The same cannot be said for Razer, whose profitability is going backwards.

Massive increases in marketing – more than double in two years – as well as continued funding of R&D pushed Razer into the red in 2015, with that loss surging last year.

In reality, the buzz that its marketing team has managed to create is providing diminishing returns. A closer look at the income statement shows that Razer’s gross margin is shrinking. One way to assess how much a brand name is really worth is by looking at how much markup a hardware company can extract above the cost of making the goods it sells. By this measure, Razer’s value is falling.

And while its Razer Blade laptops get top billing on the company’s product website, 76.2% of sales comes from peripherals such as keyboards, mice and audio devices. That makes Logitech International SA a better point of comparison.

«

As Culpan shows, Razer’s operating income has gone from positive in 2014 to negative in 2015 and 2016, principally due to huge marketing costs.
link to this extract


Responding to the “Campaign for Accountability” report on academic research • Google blog

Leslie Miller, director of public policy:

»

we’re proud to maintain strong relations with academics, universities and research institutes, in our own name, so we wanted to take a few moments to respond to the report.

We run many research programs that provide funding and resources to the external research community. This helps public and private institutions pursue research on important topics in computer science, technology, and a wide range of public policy and legal issues. Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions who have a long history of undertaking research on these topics—across important areas like copyright, patents, and free expression. We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas.

These programs (and those run by other companies) augment the government and university-funded research that is the backbone of academic discourse in the United States.

We also run policy fellowship programs. Most other companies do this too; the difference with Google is that we list ours publicly on our policy website.

«

Miller notes that the Campaign for Accountability, which pointed to all this funding, doesn’t disclose its funding sources itself. However, the CfA isn’t trying to influence governments or persuade academics to write papers which broadly back its work.
link to this extract


Profits are for suckers • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Greenberg:

»

Scan the list of the latest IPOs, and the trend is clear. Of the last 20 technology IPOs only 3 companies were profitable in the year before going public, and many were not even close.

Call us old-fashioned, but we like profits. One of the first posts on this site covered the importance of profits. Companies that have profits control their destinies. Without profit, they operate at the mercy of people providing capital.

But clearly something has changed – the cost of capital has fallen off a cliff. Calculating a company’s cost of capital is complicated. The topic is an entire course at Business School. People get their PhDs looking at the subject, but a very rough way to calculate the cost of equity finance is to invert a company’s P/E multiple. So a company trading at a P/E of 10x has a 10% cost of equity, at 20x that cost is 5%. For a company trading at 200x, the cost of equity is basically 50bps. To put that in perspective, inflation is around 2% in the US, while the average multiple for an S&P 500 stock is 26.5X, or a 3.7% cost of capital. For the many companies going public on little or no profits, public market investors are paying companies for the privilege of investing in them.

In this kind of environment it makes all kinds of sense for companies to raise as much as possible. They are being paid to do so. There are many companies that probably ‘make’ more money from this equity float than they are making from the product or service they are selling.

«

Snap being an obvious example.
link to this extract


Investigators look for links between Trump, Russia cyber operations • McClatchy Washington Bureau

Peter Stone and Greg Gordon:

»

Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

Also under scrutiny is the question of whether Trump associates or campaign aides had any role in assisting the Russians in publicly releasing thousands of emails, hacked from the accounts of top Democrats, at turning points in the presidential race, mainly through the London-based transparency web site WikiLeaks, .

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told McClatchy he wants to know whether Russia’s “fake or damaging news stories” were “coordinated in any way in terms of targeting or in terms of timing or in terms of any other measure … with the (Trump) campaign.”

By Election Day, an automated Kremlin cyberattack of unprecedented scale and sophistication had delivered critical and phony news about the Democratic presidential nominee to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of millions of voters, many in swing states, even in key precincts.

«

Given what we now know about the Trump campaign meeting Russia-linked folk, this becomes a more important question.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s post about Fitbit buying a smartwatch maker dated from January. Since then, there hasn’t been any good news for Fitbit.

Start Up: death of the web startup?, how Google paid for academic coverage, Daily Mail sued, and more


Windows Phone’s first incarnation: the world was very, very, very different then, as the BBC story indicates. Photo by JesarArts on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Windows Phone dies today • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Microsoft is killing off Windows Phone 8.1 support today, more than three years after the company first introduced the update. The end of support marks an end to the Windows Phone era, and the millions of devices still running the operating system. While most have accepted that the death of Windows Phone occurred more than a year ago, AdDuplex estimates that nearly 80% of all Windows-powered phones are still running Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8, or Windows Phone 8.1. All of these handsets are now officially unsupported, and only 20% of all Windows phones are running the latest Windows 10 Mobile OS.

Windows Phone 8.1 was a big update to Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 operating system, and included the company’s Cortana digital assistant. A new notification center, UI changes, and updates to the core mobile OS. It marked one of Microsoft’s biggest efforts with its Windows Phone work, but it wasn’t successful at competing with Android and iOS. 99.6% of all new smartphones now run Android or iOS, and Microsoft has given up producing its own Lumia-branded hardware as a result.

«

Flashback to September 2010:

This was the funeral – allegedly – for the iPhone, because Windows Phone v 1.0 had been released to manufacture. Life comes at you.. quite slowly sometimes.
link to this extract


McDonald’s takes domain names off the menu • Domain Name Wire

Andrew Allemann:

»

McDonald’s had decided it doesn’t want to run new top level domain names after all.

The restaurant chain applied to run the .McDonalds and .MCD top level domain names, but it recently sent termination notices (pdf) to domain name overseer ICANN voluntarily relinquishing the two domains.

It joins a host of companies that applied for so-called .brand top level domain names that have decided it’s not worth the expense or effort.

ICANN also just published a termination notice from Pampered Chef, a Berkshire Hathaway company, for .PamperedChef.

«

Another example of the new top-level domains being pointless. They really are the deforested wastelands of the web. (OK, nothing had to be torn down, but who is there at all that finds them useful?)
link to this extract


The end of the internet startup • Vox

Timothy Lee:

»

the 2010s seem to be suffering from a startup drought. People are still starting startups, of course. But the last really big tech startup success, Facebook, is 13 years old.

Until last year, Uber seemed destined to be Silicon Valley’s newest technology giant. But now Uber’s CEO has resigned in disgrace and the company’s future is in doubt. Other technology companies launched in the past 10 years don’t seem to be in the same league. Airbnb, the most valuable American tech startup after Uber, is worth $31 billion, about 7% of Facebook’s value. Others — like Snap, Square, and Slack — are worth much less.

So what’s going on? On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, I posed that question to several technology executives and startup investors.

“When I look at like Google and Amazon in the 1990s, I kind of feel like it’s Columbus and Vasco da Gama sailing out of Portugal the first time,” said Jay Zaveri, an investor at the Silicon Valley firm Social Capital.

The early internet pioneers grabbed the “low-hanging fruit,” Zaveri suggested, occupying lucrative niches like search, social networks, and e-commerce. By the time latecomers like Pinterest and Blue Apron came along, the pickings had gotten slimmer.

«

This doesn’t make sense. There aren’t big startups, apart from the gigantic Uber, Snap, AirBnB, Square, hang on, don’t go, I’ll run out of names in a minute, Slack…

One could have thought this at any time from 1997. It still isn’t true. There will be other big startups; you just aren’t looking in the right place.
link to this extract


News publishers team up to take on Facebook, Google • WSJ

Lukas Alpert, Deepa Seetharaman and Brent Kendall:

»

The News Media Alliance—a trade coalition representing some 2,000 organizations across the U.S. and Canada, including Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones—says antiquated antitrust laws have had “the unintended effect of preserving and protecting Google and Facebook’s dominant position,” by limiting publishers’ ability to push for changes together.

Federal antitrust law bars competitors from coordinating on business decisions and market strategy. If granted a limited waiver by Congress, the group said it would seek stronger intellectual-property protections, better support for digital subscription models and a fairer share of revenue and customer data.

“Quality journalism is critical to sustaining democracy and is central to civic society,” the alliance’s president and chief executive, David Chavern, said in a statement. “To ensure that such journalism has a future, the news organizations that fund it must be able to collectively negotiate with the digital platforms that effectively control distribution and audience access in the digital age.”

«

No, no, no, no. The monopoly that Facebook and Google have in this space – search and social – is entirely legally acquired. It’s not right to allow a cartel – illegal in every other area of business – just because publishers are having trouble with the shift to digital. Had they made different choices earlier on, things might have been different.
link to this extract


Paying professors: inside Google’s academic influence campaign • WSJ

»

Google operates a little-known program to harness the brain power of university researchers to help sway opinion and public policy, cultivating financial relationships with professors at campuses from Harvard University to the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying stipends of $5,000 to $400,000, The Wall Street Journal found.

Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the Journal in public-records requests of more than a dozen university professors. The professors don’t always reveal Google’s backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics, the Journal found.

University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald pitched an idea on copyrights he thought would be useful to Google, and he received $18,830 to fund the work. The paper, published in 2012, didn’t mention his sponsor. “Oh, wow. No, I didn’t. That’s really bad,” he said in an interview. “That’s purely oversight.”…

…Google has paid professors whose papers, for instance, declared that the collection of consumer data was a fair exchange for its free services; that the company didn’t use its market dominance to improperly steer users to Google’s commercial sites or its advertisers; and that it hasn’t unfairly quashed competitors. Several papers argued that Google’s search engine should be allowed to link to books and other intellectual property that authors and publishers say should be paid for—a group that includes News Corp, which owns the Journal. News Corp formally complained to European regulators about Google’s handling of news articles in search results.

«

News Corporation’s long-running struggle against Google continues. Put like this, though, Google’s position doesn’t look great.
link to this extract


Daily Mail sued for ‘pirating’ dozens of viral videos • TorrentFreak

“Ernesto”:

»

Initially, [viral video maker] Rumble and the Daily Mail had a license agreement to use the videos on their website. However, according to the complaint, the British tabloid continued to publish them after the license expired.

When the infringing usage continued, Rumble retained legal counsel to solve the matter, but that didn’t help either. This eventually culminated in legal action.

“Rumble asserts that the infringement here is of the most bold and bald-faced kind, exhibiting an utter disrespect for the copyrights of others,” the complaint reads.

“That [the infringment] is ‘willful’ in the factual and legal sense of the word is beyond dispute, such that the ultimate damages to be awarded will be reasonably and justifiably enhanced, including an award of Rumble’s attorneys fees as well.”

Rumble expects that Daily Mail will claim that they were not aware of the infringing activities so cautions the court not to fall for these type of excuses. The video platform stresses that turning a blind eye to the copyrights of others is part of the tabloid’s playbook, and plans to prove this at trial.

With dozens of videos listed in the legal paperwork, the potential piracy damages requested by the company are around $10m. In addition, Rumble asks for an injunction to stop the infringing activity as soon as possible.

«

Hmm, this is going to be a tough one for the Mail to argue.
link to this extract


Unjust, unreasonable, and unduly discriminatory: electric utility rates and the campaign against rooftop solar by Ari Peskoe :: SSRN

Ari Peskoe of the Harvard Environmental Policy Initiative:

»

The century-old technology and business model for electricity distribution is under threat. Decentralized technologies and services now allow consumers to buy less power from their local monopoly provider and customize the timing and price of the electricity they do buy. In response, investor-owned utilities (IOUs), which distribute power to 75% of U.S. homes, are urging state utility regulators to take action to protect the incumbent paradigm.

«

This is a followup to the NYT story from the other day about lobbying by utilities over the rates paid for solar installations.

From the paper itself (free download):

»

the average price charged by IOUs to residential ratepayers increased by 50% between 2000 and 2014, and some analysts predict that PV [photovoltaic] power will soon be less expensive than the local IOU’s rate across the country. As the price of central grid power and PV power converge, more ratepayers will find it economical to purchase or lease their own PV, rather than rely solely on the IOU.

The potential for this new paradigm raises several questions, such as: does an electricity system that connects thousands of PV systems ultimately benefit consumers, and how does society socialize the costs of this new grid? This paper does not seek to answer either question. Rather, it presumes that there is enormous uncertainty about how the electricity system will develop. Using regulation to prevent the deployment of a particular set of technologies and services is ill-advised because it locks the industry into existing models and inhibits innovation, which could ultimately harm consumers.

This paper does not argue that specific technologies or services should be deployed today, or even ever. Rather, the paper provides context for understanding ongoing debates between factions representing the central grid and those in favor of increasing decentralization.

«

In short: solar is disruptive.
link to this extract


Facebook to show ads on Messenger to bolster revenue growth • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman:

»

Facebook has spent years developing two of the world’s most popular messaging apps. Now, with slowing revenue growth in its core service, it wants to cash in.

Starting Tuesday, Facebook will show advertisements inside Messenger, the chat app that Facebook says is now used by 1.2 billion people every month. The ads will be shown between users’ messages, similar to the way ads are sandwiched between posts in Facebook’s news feed, the main scroll of pictures, videos and posts that greets everyone who uses the service.

Facebook plans to roll out the ads “slowly and carefully” to Messenger’s users, said Stan Chudnovsky, Messenger’s head of product, replicating the strategy followed by its photo-sharing app, Instagram, which started showing ads to users in 2013 and took a couple of years to implement more widely.

Facebook also has been studying ways to profit from WhatsApp, the company’s other messaging app…

…Both Messenger and WhatsApp, which also claims 1.2 billion users, have been studying moneymaking strategies centered on connecting users to advertisers. Facebook has said two billion messages are sent between people and businesses every day over Messenger. Barclays Capital estimates that figure is about 2.5 billion for WhatsApp. But Messenger is more popular in affluent markets like the U.S. and Europe, while WhatsApp is more popular in developing countries that haven’t yet been lucrative for Facebook.

Facebook could net an extra $11bn in revenue from the two messaging apps by 2020, Barclays Capital estimates.

«

link to this extract


Bitcoin is having a civil war right as it enters a critical month • Bloomberg

Lulu Yilun Chen and Yuji Nakamura:

»

After two years of largely behind-the-scenes bickering, rival factions of computer whizzes who play key roles in bitcoin’s upkeep are poised to adopt two competing software updates at the end of the month. That has raised the possibility that bitcoin will split in two, an unprecedented event that would send shockwaves through the $41bn market.

While both sides have big incentives to reach a consensus, bitcoin’s lack of a central authority has made compromise difficult. Even professional traders who’ve followed the dispute’s twists and turns aren’t sure how it will all pan out. Their advice: brace for volatility and be ready to act fast once a clear outcome emerges.

“It’s a high-stakes game of chicken,” said Arthur Hayes, a former market maker at Citigroup Inc. who now runs BitMEX, a bitcoin derivatives venue in Hong Kong. “If you’re a trader, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what happens. Once there’s a definitive signal about what will be done, the price could move very quickly.”…

…after previous counter-proposals championed by Wu [Jihan, cofounder of the world’s largest bitcoin mining organisation Antpool], fell through, miners last month agreed to compromise and support SegWit, in exchange for increasing the block size. Wu says the plan will alleviate short-to-medium term congestion and give Core enough time to flesh out a long-term solution. That proposal is what is known as SegWit2x, which implements SegWit and doubles the block size limit.

“You can think of the SegWit2x proposal as an olive branch,” said Wu.

Support for SegWit2x has reached levels unseen for previous solutions. About 85% of miners have signaled they are willing to run the software once it’s released on July 21, and some of bitcoin’s largest companies have also jumped on board.

The unprecedented level of endorsement is partly prompted by anxiety of bitcoin losing its dominant status to ethereum, a newer cryptocurrency whose popularity has soared thanks to its ability to run smart contracts and its more corporate-friendly approach.

«

link to this extract


Samsung rebuts reports of lackluster Galaxy S8 sales • AndroidAuthority

Bogdan Petrovan:

»

Reports out of Korea suggest the Galaxy S8 has failed to outsell its predecessor in the first months of availability.

Financial publication The Bell, via The Investor, cited reports from industry analysts that put Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus sales at around 9.8m units in the first two months. That’s 20% lower than the 12m Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge’s that Samsung is estimated to have moved in the same period last year. According to the unnamed analysts, Samsung has reduced component orders, a sign of lackluster sales.

A Samsung official refuted the reports, pointing that the Galaxy S8 initially launched in a smaller number of markets compared to the wide global launch that the Galaxy S7 enjoyed. “We estimate S8’s sales volume to be similar to that of S7 for now,” the Samsung representative added.

If the analyst reports would be accurate, it would be a major reversal for the well-reviewed Galaxy S8. On May 16, Samsung announced it sold 5m Galaxy S8 units in the first three weeks of availability, 20% to 30% higher than the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. To go from 20% higher to 20% lower, sales in the second month of availability must have been extremely poor, which is unlikely.

«

I changed the headline, which originally said “refutes” (which means offers evidence disproving); “rebut” means “to contradict”. There’s no evidence from Samsung, only some pointers on why something might not be true.

While reading this article, I wondered how long sites like Android Authority and Android Police can continue. Now that the white heat of smartphone sales expansion is over, their narrow focus looks, well, narrow, and hence unsustainable. Who’s going to care about the minutiae of Samsung phone sales, Google Maps feature tweaks, and other marginalia in five years’ time?
link to this extract


Fitbit acquires the Vector smartwatch startup, as the wearable giant continues its roll-up • TechCrunch

Mike Butcher:

»

Well this is a relatively fast exit. In March last year a brand new smartwatch brand appeared, hoping to offer something different. Combining the incredible engineering talent in Central Europe’s Romania with the business smarts of London and former executives from Citizen watches, the Vector startup carved out a very credible slot in the “affordable luxury” smartwatch sector.

Only a year later, Vector has been acquired for an undisclosed price by global wearable giant Fitbit. Founder and CTO Andrei Pitis confirmed to TechCrunch that the company was acquired for its software platform and design team. This does not, however, signal a move into the luxury smartwatch sector by Fitbit.

What is does confirm is that Fitbit is continuing its roll-up of talent associated with watches, wearables and fitness devices. In November, Fitbit acquired a pioneer in the smartwatch space, Pebble, with all its engineering talent being sucked into Fitbit. The same fate now awaits Vector, which raised only a small amount of cash, but turned heads with its clever hardware and software integration and design smarts.

«

Race against time for Fitbit. Has to get to successful smartwatches because the step trackers aren’t going to sustain them.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Final Fantasy’s housing crunch, Twitter tightens up, Oculus cuts its price (again), and more


Have you seen about 300,000 of these? A Shanghai startup has, um, lost them. Photo by matej.duzel on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Two Final Fantasy XIV players buy dozens of homes, spark debate over housing shortage • Kotaku

Cecilia D’Anastasio:

»

Frustration over Final Fantasy XIV’s housing shortage has come to a head after two players angered a lot of others by buying up 28 homes in the land-strapped massively multiplayer online game. Now, players are questioning whether virtual housing is an equal right or a privilege meant for the rich and over-dedicated.

The two players bought their homes in a formerly vacant corner of the game, a server called Mateus, where they could pursue dual ambitions of opulence and privacy. Their critics say they’ve hoarded land from dozens of FFXIV citizens, who feel they deserve a chance at housing. That criticism has gotten ugly as players hotly debate whether their elitism—or desire for mass amounts of property—has any place in a game where everybody pays the same fee.

“Given we both came to Mateus for the quiet, it’s distinctly uncomfortable to have others come in and insult us,” one of the bulk home-owners, a player who goes by the name Martyr Igeyorhm, told me during a tour of their two-occupant neighborhood today. “We’ve had to report people for harassment a few times.” Her housing partner Seraph Altima agreed, adding, “I think it’s wrong that people ignore the work and just see themselves being deprived.”

FFXIV has had housing drama as long as it’s had houses. When producer Naoki Yoshida introduced housing to FFXIV in 2011, he emphasized fair land distribution. But in the intervening years, housing has become a contentious topic in the game as speculators and thick-pocketed players monopolized property on big servers. Other times, players didn’t even use the houses they buy; it’s just a status symbol.

About 2,500 houses are available for each of FFXIV’s servers, which on average host over twice that amount of players. Houses aren’t a necessity in FFXIV, but owning one means having your own space to invite new raiding friends, host parties and, most importantly, decorate.

«

Can’t escape the reality of social policy even in fantasy.
link to this extract


About the Notifications timeline • Twitter Help Center

Twitter has updated things:

»

Advanced filter settings
You might receive notifications from certain types of accounts you’d like to avoid. In addition to enabling the quality filter, you can choose to disable notifications from the following types of accounts: 

• Accounts that are new (that you don’t follow).
• Accounts that don’t follow you (that you don’t follow).
• Accounts you don’t follow.
• Accounts with a default profile photo (that you don’t follow).
• Accounts without a confirmed email address (that you don’t follow).
• Accounts without a confirmed phone number (that you don’t follow).

«

Quite a few of these are things that people have been asking for since almost forever. Everything comes if you’re patient. But it might be too late for Twitter.
link to this extract


Car startup Faraday Future halts North Las Vegas factory plan amid cash troubles, is working on Plan B • The Nevada Independent

Michelle Rindels:

»

Faraday Future’s announcement Monday to halt its existing factory-building plan and pursue a smaller option comes less than a week after a Shanghai court froze $183m in assets of Jia Yueting because of missed loan payments from LeEco — his Chinese media and online video conglomerate — to various Chinese financial institutions. Architects of the deal to bring the company to Nevada say the state braced from the start for this possibility and hasn’t lost money on the dropped venture, although it dashes hopes for major job creation and workforce training in a needy part of the state.

“We have decided to put a hold on our factory at the Apex site in North Las Vegas. We remain committed to the Apex site in Las Vegas for long-term vehicle manufacturing,” Stefan Krause, who’s been Faraday Future’s chief financial officer for the past four months, said in a statement. “We at Faraday Future are significantly shifting our business strategy to position the company as the leader in user-ship personal mobility — a vehicle usage model that reimagines the way users access mobility.

“As a result of this shift in direction, we are in the final stages of confirming a new manufacturing facility that presents a faster path to start-of-production and aligns with future strategic options.”

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A company with no money is confirming a new manufacturing facility? That’s going to be special.

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Member of UK gig-economy review panel was an early Deliveroo investor • FT

Aliya Ram:

»

Greg Marsh, one of four key members of an influential government review into modern employment practices, was an early investor into one of the companies at the heart of the discussion.

Mr Marsh, an entrepreneur, participated in a 2014 funding round in which Deliveroo, the food takeaway app, raised £2.75m. He bought shares worth “less than £10,000″ in the company, he said, which he attempted to to sell in November after being appointed to the government commissioned review.

According to Mr Marsh, his stake in Deliveroo was fully disclosed to Matthew Taylor, the former Labour official leading the review. He added that he had sold his full stake by the end of January.

The link between Mr Marsh and Deliveroo will raise questions about the impartiality of the Taylor review, which is due to be published tomorrow and will make recommendations about the employment practices of “gig” employers such as Deliveroo.

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Pando goes to… “The Startup Mingle Party and ‘Summer Seduction’ Lingerie Fashion Show” • Pando

Sarah Lacy:

»

Mic in hand, the host of SOMA’s most talked about “Startup Mingle and Lingerie fashion show” was keen to “get this party started.” But first, he had something to get off his chest.

 “I don’t know how many of you read the news,” he began, the slight against millennial curiosity presumably unintentional. “But there have been some people saying that this event is sexist. And, sure, all publicity is good publicity, but this is something we take very seriously. Obviously, they have no idea who we are or what this event is about.” 

“If they were really investigative journalists, they’d be here,” he added as a newspaper reporter in the crowd silently unsheathed her notebook and I stepped further into the shadows.

Until last week, there’s no earthly reason why you would have heard of J. Brad Carrick, a man whose styling might be best described as Gavin Newsom meets off-Strip illusionist. Nor should you be familiar with his legal and business services company, Creative Startup Labs, or his “functional fashion” startup, Solz, maker of foldable shoes and solar-powered backpacks, or his online fashion-meets-legal-advice magazine, Fashion Injuction. Similarly, if you’re a serious Silicon Valley entrepreneur it’s unlikely you will have found yourself at one of his now-infamous minglers.

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Here’s why you should worry less about dwell time on web pages • Medium

SessionCam monitors what people do on sites, and has some news for those who think “longer on the page is better”:

»

The old assumption is that people who buy things spend longer on your site than people who don’t, so targeting longer dwell time is a great idea. But let’s examine that a little more closely: Those visitors spent more time because they were already looking to buy or your content was already relevant to them. Dwell time isn’t the catalyst for engagement, it’s a side-effect of it.

We’ve analyzed hundreds of thousands of website sessions and high dwell times tend to indicate that visitors are struggling. They don’t interact with the page because they can’t understand it or don’t easily find what they’re looking for. Those sessions often feature pages with too much information or poor layout.

Conversely, our analysis of sessions with a low dwell time indicates that in those cases visitors find what they need to on the page. That allows them to more quickly complete their intended task. What you consider an acceptable dwell time will differ from page to page. You want a login process to be fast but expect completing a payment form to take a little longer.

Dwell time alone is a black box. It’s hard to work out whether a visitor is engaged, struggling or simply away from the keyboard. The distance traveled by the cursor is just one measure that can act as a proxy for duration and the visitor has to be present. Our studies suggest distance traveled is much more important in identifying struggle than duration.

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Facebook cuts price of Oculus Rift VR headset to $400, matching PlayStation VR • Business Insider

Alex Heath:

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Facebook is once again cutting the price of its high-end Oculus Rift virtual reality headset amidst heated competition from HTC, Sony, and others.

For the next six weeks, Facebook-owned Oculus VR is lowering the combined price of its Rift headset and touch controllers from $600 to $400. The new price point matches Sony’s PlayStation VR headset, which has quickly emerged as the early leader in the race to bring VR to the masses.

Oculus VP of content Jason Rubin told Business Insider that the Rift’s reduced price is intended to attract less avid gamers who are reluctant to spend a lot of money on high-end VR.

“We know that hardware moves at that price point,” said Rubin.

Sony announced in February that it had sold 925,000 units of its PlayStation VR headset. Oculus has yet to disclose sales of its headset, but third-party estimates show that Rift sales have fallen well behind Sony and the HTC Vive.

Facebook kicked off the tech industry’s push into VR with its purchase of Oculus for $2bn in 2014. Since then, a string of production setbacks, management shakeups, and a $500m lawsuit with game maker ZeniMax have plagued Oculus. Earlier this year, Facebook closed hundreds of its Oculus VR pop-up shops in Best Buys after some stores went days without a single demo.

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Price cuts won’t turn a fourth-placed product into a first-placed one. Without the content (read: games) and the installed base ready to use it (Sony miles ahead of the pack there), this is money down the drain. If it costs the same as a Sony device, but you’ll need a pricey desktop PC (most people have laptops), you’re not going to add any new sales at the margin.
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Binary co-founder blames “corrupted” media for his resignation offer • Axios

Dan Primack:

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Binary Capital co-founder Jonathan Teo slammed the media, investor leaks and at least one of his portfolio companies in an email sent to all Binary portfolio CEOs on Saturday, more than two weeks after his former partner, Justin Caldbeck, resigned over allegations that he had sexually harassed female founders. Axios has obtained the email, which is reprinted in full after the jump.

Some highlights:

• Teo remains managing partner of Binary Capital, as its limited partners have not yet accepted his offer to resign.

• Teo says that his resignation offer was not based on any personal failings, but rather was intended to stop a news cycle “by giving the blunt-tooled media activists what they wanted.” He also writes: “The news we read and have access to is a problem. Media has been corrupted.”

• Teo claims only one entrepreneur has asked to buy back shares from Binary, and says that those who choose that route are engaged in “opportunistic grandstanding.”

• Teo lashed out at an investor who he believes has been leaking information to the media (psst Jon, it’s more than one), and repeatedly complains about “whiners” who want to be “coddled.”

• He says he is “angry” that women have been hurt, although he also says it is “moronic” that some believe only a woman should be chosen as Binary’s next general partner.

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TL;DR: man angry about way that sexism is finally being acted on in Silicon Valley is still angry.
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Umbrella-sharing startup loses nearly all of its 300,000 umbrellas in a matter of weeks • Shanghaiist

»

With bike-sharing companies like Mobike becoming incredibly successful in Chinese cities, a few startups have decided to mimic the concept with shareable umbrellas. The only problem: most of the umbrellas have gone missing.

Only a few weeks after starting up operations in 11 cities across China, Sharing E Umbrella announced that it had lost almost all of its 300,000 umbrellas.

The Shenzhen-based company was launched with a 10 million yuan ($1.4m) investment. The concept was similar to those that bike-sharing startups have used to (mostly) great success. Customers use an app on their smartphone to pay a 19 yuan ($2.80) deposit fee for an umbrella, which costs just 50 jiao for every half hour of use.

According to the South China Morning Post, company CEO Zhao Shuping said that the idea came to him after watching bike-sharing schemes take off across China, making him realize that “everything on the street can now be shared.”

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If they introduced continuous billing for the umbrellas, then these guys are rich beyond avarice.

If not.. they’ve just lost a ton of money, and about 100kg of umbrellas.
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Self-driving cars prove to be labour-intensive for humans • FT

Tim Bradshaw:

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Self-driving cars seem like a magical idea. The concept of vehicles that can operate themselves, without steering wheels or pedals, leaps straight from the pages of science fiction. 

Yet like so many fantastical stories, there are “wizards” hidden behind the curtain — lots of them. Constructing the road to fully automated driving, it turns out, requires a lot of manual labour. 

Most companies working on this technology employ hundreds or even thousands of people, often in offshore outsourcing centres in India or China, whose job it is to teach the robo-cars to recognise pedestrians, cyclists and other obstacles. The workers do this by manually marking up or “labelling” thousands of hours of video footage, often frame by frame, taken from prototype vehicles driving around testbeds such as Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh and Phoenix. 

“Machine learning is a myth, it’s all Wizard of Oz type work,” says Jeremy Conrad, an investor at Lemnos Labs in San Francisco. “The labelling teams are incredibly important in every company, and will need to be there for some time because the outdoor environment is so dynamic.”

…“AI practitioners, in my mind, have collectively had an arrogant blind spot, which is that computers will solve everything,” says Matt Bencke, founder and chief executive of Mighty.Ai, which taps a community of part-time workers to filter and tag training data for tech companies.

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Google Home breaks up domestic dispute by calling the police • Gizmodo

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We’re gradually learning that smart home devices can be quite valuable for police. Following a recent case in which Amazon handed over data from its Echo device to police investigating a murder, a Google Home called the police when a couple was allegedly involved in a violent domestic dispute.

According to ABC News, officers were called to a home outside Albuquerque, New Mexico this week when a Google Home called 911 and the operator heard a confrontation in the background. Police say that Eduardo Barros was house-sitting at the residence with his girlfriend and their daughter. Barros allegedly pulled a gun on his girlfriend when they got into an argument and asked her: “Did you call the sheriffs?” Google Home apparently heard “call the sheriffs,” and proceeded to call the sheriffs.

«

Except that some intrepid reporting by Alex Hern has found that perhaps it wasn’t a smart speaker, since the Alexa can’t make a call and there wasn’t a Google Home. Most likely: the girlfriend silently dialled 911 on her phone, which would explain the man saying “Did you call the sheriffs?” So, non-story.

(Also, if you knew people whose last name was Sheriff – I do – then innocent conversations at home could go awfully awry.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Russia hacks US power, the solar subsidy fight, wild Amazon bot!, what Google reveals, and more


Vertu faces a court battle which might determine whether it has a future – though even that looks cloudy. Photo by legos+dream on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Court battle puts Vertu’s future on the line •Daily Telegraph

Christopher Williams:

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‘I have two of these phones that are basically useless now,” says Kenneth Tong, a customer of the troubled British smartphone brand Vertu. “$40,000 worth,” he adds.

Tong is upset that Vertu suddenly stopped providing on-demand concierge services for its well-heeled clientele. For almost 200 workers at the company’s Hampshire manufacturing base who have not been paid this month and have discovered around £400,000 missing from their pension fund, the problems are more serious.

This weekend they are in limbo as Vertu’s owner, a Paris-based Turkish exile named Murat Hakan Uzan, prepares to apply to the High Court to allow a pre-pack administration of their employer, the manufacturing arm Vertu Corporation. They have been told their jobs can be saved if the court and creditors agree to wipe out an accounting deficit of more than £128m and allow Uzan to buy the company out of administration for just €2.2m (£1.9m).

It is an ignominious fate for a brand that targets the super-rich, with handsets clad in titanium and sapphire glass starting at around £10,000 and going up to as much as £280,000 for bespoke, jewel-encrusted devices.

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If word gets out, Vertu is toast. Oh, hang on..
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U.S. officials say Russian government hackers have penetrated energy and nuclear company business networks • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima:

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Russian government hackers were behind recent cyber-intrusions into the business systems of US nuclear power and other energy companies in what appears to be an effort to assess their networks, according to US government officials.

The US officials said there is no evidence the hackers breached or disrupted the core systems controlling operations at the plants, so the public was not at risk. Rather, they said, the hackers broke into systems dealing with business and administrative tasks, such as personnel.

At the end of June, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent a joint alert to the energy sector stating that “advanced, persistent threat actors” — a euphemism for sophisticated foreign hackers — were stealing network log-in and password information to gain a foothold in company networks. The agencies did not name Russia.

The campaign marks the first time Russian government hackers are known to have wormed their way into the networks of American nuclear power companies, several US and industry officials said. And the penetration could be a sign that Russia is seeking to lay the groundwork for more damaging hacks.

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Must just be preparation for that impenetrable joint cyber security thingamajig they’re going to set up jointly.
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16 startup metrics • Andreessen Horowitz

Jeff Jordan, Anu Hariharan, Frank Chen, and Preethi Kasireddy from the venture capital fund:

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We have the privilege of meeting with thousands of entrepreneurs every year, and in the course of those discussions are presented with all kinds of numbers, measures, and metrics that illustrate the promise and health of a particular company. Sometimes, however, the metrics may not be the best gauge of what’s actually happening in the business, or people may use different definitions of the same metric in a way that makes it hard to understand the health of the business.

So, while some of this may be obvious to many of you who live and breathe these metrics all day long, we compiled a list of the most common or confusing ones. Where appropriate, we tried to add some notes on why investors focus on those metrics. Ultimately, though, good metrics aren’t about raising money from VCs — they’re about running the business in a way where founders know how and why certain things are working (or not) … and can address or adjust accordingly.

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This is a fascinating list: would you know the difference between “Total Contract Value” and “Annual Contract Value”, and “Gross Merchandise Value v Revenue”?
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Rooftop solar dims under pressure from utility lobbyists • The New York Times

Hiroko Tabuchi:

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Over the past six years, rooftop solar panel installations have seen explosive growth — as much as 900% by one estimate.

That growth has come to a shuddering stop this year, with a projected decline in new installations of 2%, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

A number of factors are driving the reversal, from saturation in markets like California to financial woes at several top solar panel makers.

But the decline has also coincided with a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.

Utilities argue that rules allowing private solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid at the retail price — a practice known as net metering — can be unfair to homeowners who do not want or cannot afford their own solar installations.

Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies. Since 2013, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Indiana have decided to phase out net metering, crippling programs that spurred explosive growth in the rooftop solar market. (Nevada recently reversed its decision.)

Many more states are considering new or higher fees on solar customers.

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Selling back at the retail price (that you would pay to receive it) seems excessive. But solar deserves subsidy, for this reason: it reduces the future investment that utilities would otherwise have to make in power plants (or their own solar farms). Every kilowatt-hour generated by home solar doesn’t have to be paid for by the utility, and every kilowatt installed means a concomitant amount won’t be needed for daytime generation in the future. Pricing the subsidy correctly is tricky, for sure; too high and you crush the utilities’ business model; too low and it crushes the solar business.

However the “talking points” that the utilities were offering to try to get repeals (revealed later in the story) are nonsense. After all, the simple measure for them is to install more solar themselves on customers’ houses, pay for it, and keep the repayments on that basis.
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My-Handy-Design phone cases • Amazon.com

This is a page which shows what happens when a bot which can make anything to order goes wrong. It’s offering phone cases. And it’s trying to hit peoples’ interests via some weird search gaming. So you get phone cases which have pictures described like this:

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Three year old biracial disabled boy in medical stroller, happy cell phone cover case Samsung S5

Cheese wheel on bady instead of table cell phone cover case iPhone6

Ingrown toenail with dressing cell phone cover case Samsung S5

Handgun in nightstand drawer cell phone cover case Samsung S5

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It is quite surreal.
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Everybody lies: how Google search reveals our darkest secrets • The Guardian

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who takes a big data look via Google searches at peoples’ anxieties, prejudices, sexual preferences and fears, and also this:

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The final – and, I think, most powerful – value in this data is its ability to lead us from problems to solutions. With more understanding, we might find ways to reduce the world’s supply of nasty attitudes. Let’s return to Obama’s speech about Islamophobia [after the 2015 San Bernadino attack]. Recall that every time he argued that people should respect Muslims more, the people he was trying to reach became more enraged. Google searches, however, reveal that there was one line that did trigger the type of response Obama might have wanted. He said: “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defence of our country.”

After this line, for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after “Muslim” was not “terrorists”, “extremists”, or “refugees”. It was “athletes”, followed by “soldiers”.” And, in fact, “athletes” kept the top spot for a full day afterwards. When we lecture angry people, the search data implies that their fury can grow. But subtly provoking people’s curiosity, giving new information, and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage may turn their thoughts in different, more positive directions.

Two months after that speech, Obama gave another televised speech on Islamophobia, this time at a mosque. Perhaps someone in the president’s office had read Soltas’s and my Times column, which discussed what had worked and what hadn’t, for the content of this speech was noticeably different.

Obama spent little time insisting on the value of tolerance. Instead, he focused overwhelmingly on provoking people’s curiosity and changing their perceptions of Muslim Americans. Many of the slaves from Africa were Muslim, Obama told us; Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran; a Muslim American designed skyscrapers in Chicago. Obama again spoke of Muslim athletes and armed service members, but also talked of Muslim police officers and firefighters, teachers and doctors. And my analysis of the Google searches suggests this speech was more successful than the previous one. Many of the hateful, rageful searches against Muslims dropped in the hours afterwards.

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This assumes that Google does take American’s temperature correctly – that people are primed to respond like this. Which may well be true.
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The Essential Phone passed its 30-day shipping promise, and that’s fine • AndroidAuthority

Williams Pelegrin:

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When Android co-creator Andy Rubin took the wraps off the Essential Phone around the end of May, the Playground and Essential CEO also said the phone would ship within the following 30 days. It has been over 30 days since then, and even though the Essential Phone is not yet at my doorstep, I am perfectly okay with that.

Regardless of Rubin’s pedigree in the industry, Essential is the new kid on the block. There are plenty of wrinkles for such a young player to iron out, some of which a company like OnePlus, which has been on the market for over three years, is still working out.

It’s not as if Essential has stood on its laurels – the company received a $300m investment in June, which means that the company is now valued somewhere between $900m and $1bn. Along with the $30m the company raised in 2016, Essential is in a better position than other nascent smartphone manufacturers, at least financially.

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Yeah, fine, it’s not as if we want to hold people to their word or anything.
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BlackRock gets wiped out on Jawbone • The Information

Serena Saitto and Alfred Lee:

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Funds overseen by BlackRock expect to lose at least 96% of the roughly $300m loan they made two years ago to Jawbone, which is going out of business, government filings show.

The New York-based asset manager marked down the value of the debt it held in Jawbone by nearly 98%, according to a Wednesday filing with the SEC. Slightly offsetting that loss is a stake the funds received in a new company affiliated with Jawbone founder Hosain Rahman, Jawbone Health Hub. The funds valued the stake at close to $6m.

The Jawbone loss risks wiping out much of the gains on BlackRock’s private tech portfolio. The firm’s Global Allocation Fund, for example, made $687 million in investments in 2014 and 2015 in venture-backed companies, which was worth $656m on paper as of April 30 after accounting for the fund’s $207m loss on Jawbone. Still, the loss is a small fraction of the $40bn managed by the Global Allocation Fund.

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I’m handing this over to my World’s Tiniest Violin Fund. Also, love how BlackRock, having seen $300m go down the tubes, is now ready to invest again in the same guy.
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A year after ‘Pokémon Go,’ where are the augmented-reality hits? • WSJ

Sarah E. Needleman and Cat Zakrzewski:

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There are thousands of augmented-reality games among the millions of apps in the Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. stores. None, though, has come close to the success of “Pokémon Go.” There are several reasons why, industry observers say.

One is that the allure of “Pokémon Go” wasn’t primarily its augmented reality.

While the game’s digital monsters materialize as if in the real world, they don’t interact with it. A Snorlax might appear next to a tree, but the catlike creature won’t peek from behind it. Many players who took up hunting the monsters ended up turning off the augmented-reality feature.

The real innovation of “Pokémon Go,” analysts say, was its use of location-based technology to get players walking outside and socializing with others. A recent update to the game doubled down on community building by letting players meet at specific locations to jointly defeat powerful monsters in “raids.”

“We have worked for many years to build a new kind of game based on real world exploration, physical movement and social gameplay,” Niantic Inc., the game’s creator, said in an email. “Our definition of ’Augmented Reality’ is the entire concept of building a game that takes place in and augments the real world.”

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It’s going to be really good game mechanics which wins this, not good mechanics.
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How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous • The Guardian

David Runciman, in the latest of the Guardian’s “Long Read” series:

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Political cynicism has weaponised climate scepticism. But it might also prove to be its achilles heel. Just as pure science struggles with the fact that it can’t avoid politics, so pure politics struggles with the fact that it can’t avoid science. Even the most cynical political operators need to know what’s really likely to happen.

As reporting in the Los Angeles Times has shown, at the same time that it has been funding a PR campaign to question the scientific consensus, ExxonMobil has also been funding some of the research that underpins that consensus, including studies of rapidly shrinking ice levels in the Arctic. In the words of David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman, writing in the New York Review of Books, “a company as sophisticated and successful as Exxon would have needed to know the difference between its own propaganda and scientific reality”. Kaiser and Wasserman argue that, as a result, the company has committed fraud: it failed to disclose to its shareholders the basis on which it was making its investment decisions. Its business plans take it for granted that climate change is a real and imminent threat.

This behaviour has clear echoes of an earlier attempt to challenge the scientific consensus: the campaign by the big tobacco companies to dispute the link between smoking and cancer. Although many of these businesses recognised as far back as the 1950s that the science was sound, they funded a body of widely disseminated research designed to throw doubt on that view. Their goal was to keep the public open-minded about the dangers of cigarettes, and therefore to keep as many of them puffing away for as long as possible.

It was a purely cynical business strategy, and in some cases it was criminal as well. It worked to the extent that it bought the tobacco industry time to reorient its investment and marketing to take account of the new reality. But in the long run it failed. No reasonable person – and certainly no serious politician – now doubts the link between smoking and cancer. The fate of tobacco can give hope to people who worry that the truth is always outgunned: the science won out over the cynics in the end.

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This does offer the best route forward on tackling the sceptics – who are really cynics, not interested in truth. But as Runciman also points out, the danger is in ascribing change too quickly to climate effects.
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uBeacSec: privacy and security aspects of the ultrasound ecosystem

Following on from last time’s note about ultrasonic tracking via your phone, there’s a resistance movement:

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For the first time, we examine the different facets of ultrasound-based technology. Initially, we discuss how it is already used in the real world, and subsequently examine this emerging technology from the privacy and security perspectives. In particular, we first observe that the lack of OS features results in violations of the principle of least privilege: an app that wants to use this technology currently needs to require full access to the device microphone. We then analyse real-world Android apps and find that tracking techniques based on ultrasounds suffer from a number of vulnerabilities and are susceptible to various attacks. For example, we show that ultrasound cross-device tracking deployments can be abused to perform stealthy deanonymization attacks (e.g., to unmask users who browse the Internet through anonymity networks such as Tor), to inject fake or spoofed audio beacons, and to leak a user’s private information.

Where do we go from here?
Based on our findings, we introduce several defense mechanisms. We first propose and implement immediately deployable defenses that empower practitioners, researchers, and everyday users to protect their privacy. In particular, we introduce a browser extension and an Android permission that enable the user to selectively suppress frequencies falling within the ultrasonic spectrum. We then argue for the standardization of ultrasound beacons, and we envision a flexible OS-level API that addresses both the effortless deployment of ultrasound-enabled applications, and the prevention of existing privacy and security problems.

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The members list is a combination of University of California and University College London professors and PhD students. So someone is on it. (Via Tony Hirst.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified