Start Up No.1249: will iOS 14 let you change defaults?, killing killer asteroids, Google bans ad-riddled apps, how Pinterest lost its mojo, and more


Confused about speed? A Tesla autopilot was bamboozled by something even simpler. CC-licensed photo by Joe Richards on Flickr.

You can 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. Après nous, le weekend. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hackers can trick a Tesla into accelerating by 50 miles per hour • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

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Hackers have manipulated multiple Tesla cars into speeding up by 50 miles per hour. The researchers fooled the car’s Mobileye EyeQ3 camera system by subtly altering a speed limit sign on the side of a road in a way that a person driving by would almost never notice.

This demonstration from the cybersecurity firm McAfee is the latest indication that adversarial machine learning can potentially wreck autonomous driving systems, presenting a security challenge to those hoping to commercialize the technology.

Mobileye EyeQ3 camera systems read speed limit signs and feed that information into autonomous driving features like Tesla’s automatic cruise control, said Steve Povolny and Shivangee Trivedi from McAfee’s Advanced Threat Research team.

The researchers stuck a tiny and nearly imperceptible sticker on a speed limit sign. The camera read the sign as 85 instead of 35, and in testing, both the 2016 Tesla Model X and that year’s Model S sped up 50 miles per hour.

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Been done with Stop signs too, a year or two ago, also targeting self-driving cars (though not specifically Tesla). You’ll never be able to relax in one of them.
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Behind the McClatchy bankruptcy • A Life of Fiction

Peter Winter:

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From the start, not one online newspaper performed well enough to make the top 20 in digital share — in its own market.

Many say one of the reasons for the catastrophic collapse of newspapers is that, in their desperation for audience, they handed over their content to digital distributors. But the bigger reason was their willingness to hand over the customer relationship as well. It guaranteed they would thereafter be blind to what kind of news products and digital services their former subscriber-customers were craving.

Google won search. Facebook won social. Newspapers won nothing. The failure to build new digital media products, born on the web, is the singular failing of newspapers. It has led to the same financial horror story everywhere you look. Zombie newspapers staggering around without a plan, the death-throes of an industry going down.

By 2005, revenue growth was slowing quickly across the industry. Circulation declines were happening across the subscriber base now, and the loss of younger readers had picked up speed. Digital results offered no compensating relief, in audience or in revenue. Still [Tony] Ridder didn’t see it. At a private meeting in Dallas to discuss the formation of a national digital news network owned by newspapers, someone noticed that no company present owned a newspaper in Boston. “That’s not a problem,” said Ridder, ever the monopolist. “We’ll just flip a coin for it.” That’s all it would take. Thanks to the flip of a coin, someone in the room would own the digital future of Boston.

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And what a future it wasn’t.
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Apple might finally let you pick Chrome over Safari in iOS 14 • Macworld

Michael Simon:

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According to well-connected leakster Mark Gurman, Apple is “considering” whether to let users change the default apps on iOS devices. That’s hardly a sure thing, but even the possibility is a huge change of heart. Since the earliest days of the iPhone, links and email addresses have opened in Safari and the default Mail app, respectively. Even if you delete Mail, it merely asks you to redownload it when you tap an email address, without providing an option to use another app like Gmail or Outlook.

Presumably, this would be an iOS feature available to all devices compatible with iOS 14, and not tied to Apple’s new iPhone. On Android, Google has long let users pick default apps over Google’s own services and apps.

Additionally, the report says Apple is mulling over whether to allow Spotify to stream directly on its HomePod smart speaker. While users can stream Spotify songs to their HomePod using AirPlay on the iPhone, asking the speaker to play something using Siri will default to Apple Music, with no way to change it.

In recent years, Apple has slowly been loosening its grip on iOS, allowing things like third-party keyboards and giving developers more access to Siri, but it’s drawn a hard line at default apps. That stance has drawn the ire of users and developers and has led to an antitrust lawsuit against the company’s App Store practices.

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So it would make the HomePod more like something useful, and iOS and Android would grow even more like each other. There’s got to be a point in the future where none of the devices and none of the OSs can be distinguished from each other except when you look at the “about” screen.
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Some Staples stores in Boston are getting podcast studios • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Even Staples, the office supply store, can’t resist the lure of podcasts. The retailer is teaming up with iHeartRadio to build podcast studios at six of its stores in the Boston area.

The studios will be soundproof, have enough space for four people to record, and will sync with another company called Spreaker’s technology so people can get discounted access to its hosting and distribution services. A recording specialist will be on hand to help, too, and a 60-minute session costs $60. Although that fee only covers the actual recording time, Staples will give people discounts on editing services from We Edit Podcasts if they need help.

The studios are part of broader store renovations for what the company calls Staples Connect, which are stores designed to be co-working and community spaces for professionals, teachers, and students. The redesign speaks to the larger retail brand movement of making retail spaces more like community meeting spots.

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Clever idea. Not sure how big the audience might be but it could be a clever way to breathe life into stores that would otherwise be empty. Add a cafe, pretty soon you’re a destination.
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MIT shows how to deflect killer asteroids • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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there are two points at which we could attempt to stop an asteroid destined to hit Earth, one of which would be much easier but requires additional planning. We could try to deflect an asteroid as it hurtled toward us, but that would require much more force. Alternatively, we could nudge a space rock aside as it passed through a gravitational “keyhole.” That’s simply a location in Earth’s gravity field that pushes an asteroid into a collision course on its next orbit. 

Lead author Sung Wook Paek notes that a “last-minute” deflection is where most research has focused. However, intercepting an object before it passed through a keyhole could be much smarter. The main drawback here is that we need more data about the asteroid and its orbit. The study used two near-Earth asteroids about which we know a great deal: 99942 Apophis and 101955 Bennu. Apophis will pass near a keyhole in 2029, but it’s not currently predicted to hit us. Bennu is even less likely to find its way into a keyhole, but we have good data on this object as it’s the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. 

Paek and his team considered three basic mission profiles to deflect asteroids from a keyhole. The simplest is a single kinetic impactor, which we would fire into the object shortly before it reaches a keyhole to push it off course. Another option is to send a scout to inspect the asteroid to zero in on how a second spacecraft could knock it off course. The third consists of two halves: a scout and small impactor to potentially deflect the asteroid in the first phase, and then a second larger impactor to make completely sure the asteroid is no threat. 

Based on the test cases, the team determined five years is enough time to go for the most elaborate mission profile.

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So they have confidence we could get a mission together and launched and in place for five years before? That’s a lot of confidence given the ignorance and wilful disbelief of so many in power.
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Google has banned almost 600 Android apps for pushing “disruptive” ads • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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Google has removed close to 600 Android apps and banned their developers from the Play store and its ad networks as part of a massive crackdown on ad fraud and “disruptive” mobile ads.

One of the biggest developers banned from the Play store and Google’s ad networks was Cheetah Mobile, a publicly traded Chinese company that BuzzFeed News revealed in November 2018 had been engaging in ad fraud. The following December, Google removed one of the offending apps but allowed Cheetah to continue offering other apps in the Play store. As of this morning, Cheetah’s entire suite of roughly 45 apps in the Play store was removed, and the apps no longer offer advertising inventory for sale in Google’s ad networks.

Per Bjorke, Google’s senior product manager for ad traffic quality, told BuzzFeed News the removed apps, which had been installed more than 4.5 billion times, primarily targeted English-speaking users and were mainly from developers based in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and India. He declined to name specific apps or developers but said many of the banned apps were utilities or games. Google published a blog post today with details about the removals.

Last year, Google banned another publicly traded Chinese developer, CooTek. This took place after BuzzFeed News and a security company provided evidence that CooTek had bombarded users with disruptive ads even after telling Google it had stopped.

The tech giant’s disruptive ads policy forbids developers from displaying ads when their app is not in use, and from displaying ads in a way that “results in inadvertent clicks.” Bjorke said one example is an app that shows a full-screen ad when a user is trying to make a phone call.

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That’s a lot of installs – a rough average of two per Android phone.
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Pinterest: an inspiring social media app ruined by ads • Android Authority

Suzana Dalul:

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Advertisements were first introduced in 2013. They took the form of Promoted Pins and weren’t too aggressive. However, they are almost indistinguishable from normal content, and the only indication that a post is an ad is a small “Promoted” text under the image.

But ads ramped up significantly in 2015. It was a pivotal year for Pinterest, in which it made its first steps towards becoming a social e-commerce platform. The first addition was the (seemingly reasonable) buy button. When opening a pin uploaded directly by a retailer, you could see the price of the product and purchase it directly through Pinterest via a small blue “Buy it” button located next to the Pin it button. Many retailers partnered with the social media platform to upload their entire catalogs, flooding the website with more and more products.

Yet it was another feature introduced in 2015 that riled users up the most: Picked for you Pins. Under the guise of making your home feed more personalized, it basically erased what little social aspects Pinterest had left. The home feed was now populated with whatever the algorithm deemed relevant, based on Pins you clicked, stuff you pinned, and even your browsing history. The results were far from stellar, however. The algorithm was overly aggressive in recommending the same content over and over, often from brands, while displacing pins from those you follow. It’s a problem that persists to this day unless you tune your feed significantly — an option that was finally introduced in 2019.

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All bow down before the mightly Algorithm, which keeps the lights on – or at least, keeps the advertisers (if not necessarily the users) happy.
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OkCupid data shows caring about climate can help you get laid • Gizmodo

Dharna Noor:

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OKCupid’s algorithm matches you with people who seem to share your interests and beliefs. And how you answer questions about climate change could have an effect on who you match with, even if you don’t have the denier filter on.

“Since your match percentage with someone shows how compatible you two are, if you are a climate change activist and they think climate change is fake news, your match percentage is going to decrease,” Michael Kaye, OKCupid’s Global Communication Manager, told Earther in an email. Since most people on the platform aren’t climate deniers, that means vocally caring about the climate crisis is helping people get laid.

On some level, it makes sense that people feel a sense of connection over shared interests. But it’s telling that climate change is becoming one of those things in addition to the standard walks on the beach and all that.

“In my experience, people are finding that it’s really difficult to have an intimate relationship unless there’s a really deep alignment on how we’re relating to the issue,” Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who specializes in the melancholic psychological responses to environmental crises, told Earther. “That doesn’t mean you have to feel exactly the same way or engage on exactly the same level, but what really matters is that how you feel about it is actually okay with your partner.”

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Facebook faces tax court trial over Ireland offshore deal • Reuters

Katie Paul:

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The US Internal Revenue Service argues that Facebook understated the value of the intellectual property it sold to an Irish subsidiary in 2010 while building out global operations, a move common among US multinationals. Ireland has lower corporate tax rates than the United States, so the move reduced the company’s tax bill.

Under the arrangement, Facebook’s subsidiaries pay royalties to the US-based parent for access to its trademark, users and platform technologies. From 2010 to 2016, Facebook Ireland paid Facebook US more than $14bn in royalties and cost-sharing payments, according to the court filing.

The company said the low valuation reflected the risks associated with Facebook’s international expansion, which took place in 2010 before its IPO and the development of its most lucrative digital advertising products.

“Facebook Ireland and Facebook’s other foreign affiliates – not Facebook US – led the high-risk, and ultimately successful, international effort to sell Facebook ads,” the company said in a pre-trial memorandum.

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Going to guess that Facebook will edge through this one.
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China smartphone sales to dramatically fall in Q1 2020 under the shadow of Covid-19 epidemic • Counterpoint Research

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Commenting on impacts of Covid-19 on the overall Chinese smartphone market, Brady Wang, associate director at Counterpoint Research, said, “Demand-wise, we see the market impacted severely. We estimate more than a 50% YoY decline in offline smartphone sales during the lock-down period. Therefore, we have lowered our sales forecast 20% for Q1. The situation may worsen and we may lower our forecast even more depending on the February sales. The plummet in Q1 is likely to generate a surge in channel inventories and further influence shipments and new products launches through Q2.”

Commenting on influence on sales of smartphone OEMs, Flora Tang, Research Analyst at Counterpoint Research, said, “Huawei group is likely to suffer as China has accounted for over 60% of its total smartphones sales. OPPO and Vivo will also be impacted because of their greater reliance on offline sales channels. The influence on sales of Xiaomi, OnePlus and Realme will likely be less severe as they are more online-centric and overseas-focused.”

Mengmeng Zhang, Research Analyst at Counterpoint Research, added, “Apple has announced a shutdown of its offline stores across China until 15th February. We estimate that this will bring a sales loss of about one million units of iPhones. Apple’s new product development plans will also be affected as engineers from the USA and Taiwan cannot travel to China. The iPhone SE2 set for a late March launch is likely to have troubles in ramping up volume due to the insufficient labour force in Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory.”

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First the US sanctions mean Huawei effectively can’t sell phones that people want outside China; now Covid-19 means it can’t sell inside China. That really is the doubliest of whammys. Samsung, which manufactures outside China (though it relies on some Chinese components), is going to make hay on this one.
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PC brands cutting back IC, component orders • Digitimes

Cage Chao and Steve Shen:

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Global shipments of PC products (desktops and notebooks) are expected to retreat to a sliding path in the first quarter of 2020 as PC brands have slowed down their orders for ICs and related components due to the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, according to sources from Taiwan-based IC-design houses.

Some downstream component suppliers have experienced setbacks in orders from their notebook clients in North America, said the sources, adding that the reduced component shipments will also reflect in shipment reductions for ICs products in February and March.

In addition, some analog IC vendors said that they have seen related orders from clients weaken recently, clouding their order visibility for the first and second quarters.

Barely recovering from a prolonged slump for years, global shipments of desktop PCs and notebooks hit a five-year quarterly high of 70 million units in the fourth quarter of 2019, driven by upgrade demand for business models, noted the sources.

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Looks like we can expect slumps in both PC and smartphone shipments.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1248: Google shifts UK data out of Europe, how the Saudis infiltrated Twitter, Facebook’s minimalist fact check team, and more


An endangered species? That’s the warning from campaigners. CC-licensed photo by Rob Jewitt on Flickr.

You can 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.

Exclusive: Google users in UK to lose EU data protection – sources • Reuters

Joseph Menn:

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Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under US jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other US tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

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That it’s Joseph Menn reporting it suggests that (a) it’s true (b) the source is probably in the US rather than the EU. It’s not great news.
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Big tech to face more requirements in Europe on data sharing, AI • WSJ

Valentina Pop:

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American tech companies will soon need to meet new requirements in the European Union regarding artificial intelligence and sharing data with smaller rivals, as the bloc seeks to assert its “technological sovereignty” from the US and China.

EU regulators unveiled plans Wednesday aimed at placing more restrictions on machine learning-enabled technologies in fields ranging from public surveillance cameras to cancer scans and self-driving cars.

The legislation, to be drafted by the end of 2020, is also likely to home in on what the EU has learned from antitrust cases against Alphabet’s Google and ongoing probes into Amazon.com and Facebook: how these platforms allegedly use data to quash smaller rivals. These technology giants—which some US politicians such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren want to regulate as public utilities—are in the firing line of the coming EU legislation.

One remedy under consideration is to oblige platforms to share data with smaller rivals, especially when it comes to consumer behavior regarding the products sold by those competitors.

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Facebook pays third parties to fact check its posts. Here’s how many there are in Australia • Buzzfeed News

Cameron Wilson:

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Some of the biggest news stories in 2020 — Australia’s bushfires, Trump’s impeachment trial, the spread of the coronavirus — have been in part defined by the viral hoaxes, rumours and fake news spread widely on Facebook’s platforms.

The social media giant, which recently boasted of having 2.5 billion monthly active users worldwide who post a billion pieces of content a day, is locked in a constant battle against its users over misinformation. And it acknowledges it has a problem.

One of the company’s major tools in this fight is its third-party fact checking program.

Facebook doesn’t fact check anything itself. Instead, it uses independent companies to review claims made on its platforms. In a program launched in late 2016, the company has 55 partners certified by the International Fact-Checking Network. Facebook does pay companies for the fact checks, although some companies have refused the money.

When a post is found to contain false information by a fact checker, the company labels the post as false, prompts users if they go to share it and claims that it limits the posts’ reach by more than 80%.

Considering nearly a third of Australians get their news from Facebook, these fact checkers play an outsized role in determining what gets seen, and in what context, for the country’s 17 million users.

So just how many people are working on figuring out what’s real or not on Facebook in Australia? Seven.

Between them, they’ve completed 220 fact checks since April 2019 — about one check every one and a half days on average.

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Seven for a continent? It has more than 600 for Germany alone – because Germany passed laws about fake news. Making Facebook act responsibly can be done, but it takes political will.
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How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz, building on the US government filing about last year’s case:

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Abouammo’s seduction by the Saudi government began innocuously: with a verification request. In April 2014, according to the FBI complaint, a public relations firm representing the Saudi Embassy asked Abouammo to verify an account belonging to a Saudi news personality, whom the FBI complaint did not name. This request for a blue checkmark opened the door to a working relationship with the country’s government.

“All evil begins with a verification request,” one of Abouammo’s former colleagues at Twitter joked. After the initial exchange, a representative from a US Saudi Arabian business council in Virginia asked Abouammo to set up a tour at Twitter headquarters. The tour, supposedly for entrepreneurs, reportedly included Bader al-Asaker, an official working for Crown Prince Mohammed, who was then in the middle of a fast ascent to power.

Abouammo and al-Asaker met in London a few months later, according to the complaint. At the meeting, al-Asaker gave Abouammo a Hublot Unico Big Bang King Gold ceramic watch. The watch was expensive. In January 2015, Abouammo tried to sell it on Craigslist, claiming it was worth $35,000, but that he’d take $20,000.

Abouammo was eager to please and had a taste for money, a counterpart at a rival company who knew him told BuzzFeed News. “I think it was an extremely cash-based relationship,” he said.

A week after returning to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Abouammo logged into the system he used to verify users, according to the complaint. That system, sources who’ve accessed it told BuzzFeed News, stores information including email addresses, telephone numbers, and last log-in time — sufficient personal data to track down a user in real life.

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Twitter is real life • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

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the notion that Twitter isn’t real life is untrue. There’s the obvious literal sense. Twitter is a real-world platform and is used by very real humans. Then there’s the notion of tangible impact. Donald Trump’s use of the platform for campaigning and governing and acting as assignment editor to the media is the sterling example, but it goes well beyond that. Ask a journalist who has been fired for an old, dredged-up tweet or a woman or person of color who has been doxxed, swatted or harassed and driven from his or her home if Twitter is real life. They’ll say yes.
Editors’ Picks

There’s also something ineffable about Twitter’s influence, especially as it pertains to politics, around movement building and fandoms. Honest, sustained social media momentum behind candidates does seem to translate into something, even if it’s not clear how much to trust it. Take Andrew Yang. Though his campaign sputtered out last week, he outlasted multiple high-profile governors and senators. His staying power was linked in part to a movement he built across platforms like Twitter. Establishment pundits and politicos shocked by his longevity might have felt different had they engaged with or even observed #YangGang faithful on Twitter.

A better example might be Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably now the Democratic front-runner. The Sanders movement has been criticized for its intensity on Twitter, which infrequently but occasionally veers into toxic territory. And while analysts dissect the particulars of the Sanders online movement, what’s unquestionable is that it exists and is a stand-in for something very real: enthusiasm.

As we’ve seen so far in the Democratic primary, enthusiasm matters.

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This might be the first Charlie Warzel piece that I disagree with. Doing politics on Twitter requires zero effort; it’s a use of cognitive surplus. Getting involved in politics on the ground involves actually getting physically involved.
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A long and windy road • Makani Blog

Fort Felker:

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Makani was founded in 2006 by a group of kitesurfers who were curious about the potential for kites to unlock wind energy in more places around the globe. We started by asking questions: could we make wind energy cheaper and more accessible?

…Makani spent the past seven years at Alphabet, during which time our technology advanced from a 20kW demonstrator kite, to a utility-scale kite capable of generating 600kW. Last year, after leaving X to become an independent business, our focus shifted to becoming commercially viable and with the support of Shell, we were able to demonstrate the first flights of a utility-scale energy kite system from a floating platform off the coast of Norway.

Creating an entirely new kind of wind energy technology means facing business challenges as well as engineering challenges. Despite strong technical progress, the road to commercialization is longer and riskier than hoped, so from today Makani’s time at Alphabet is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean the end of the road for the technology Makani developed, but it does mean that Makani will no longer be an Alphabet company. Shell is exploring options to continue developing Makani’s technology.

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So Google’s out, though the idea seems promising. Feels like they’re running out of moonshots to fire.
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UK cash economy close to collapse, campaigners tell chancellor • The Guardian

Kalyeena Makortoff:

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Authors of the Access to Cash Review are calling for extra safeguards to support the UK’s cash infrastructure, which has come under severe strain in the 12 months since the original report was published last March.

The review warned then that more than 8 million UK adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society, with a significant number still relying on cash for day-to-day transactions.

The group, which is led by the former Financial Ombudsman Service boss Natalie Ceeney, wants parliament to hand extra powers to regulators and introduce rules forcing banks to provide suitable access to cash for customers.

“The UK is fast becoming a cashless society – without knowing what this really means for consumers or for the UK economy,” Ceeney said. “Many people may want a completely digital future, but we need to make sure that this shift doesn’t leave millions behind or put our economy at risk.”

In the past year, 13% of all free-to-use ATMs in the UK have closed and the number of charging ATMs has jumped from 7% to 25%, costing consumers £29m more in fees.

More and more shops are going cashless, as bank branch closures make it harder for retailers to deposit their cash. Major retailers such as Tesco are piloting stores that only accept cards and digital payments, while British Gas announced last year that customers would no longer be able to pay their bills in cash at PayPoint terminals in shops.

“This is already starting to exclude people,” the Access to Cash panel said.

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Quite weird to consider that cash might be vanishing in some places.
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Tesla’s screen saga shows why automotive grade matters • The Drive

Edward Niedermeyer:

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One of the most dramatic illustrations of both the benefits and downsides of Tesla’s approach to automaking comes from its decision to use 17-inch touch screens in its Model S and X. No automaker had ever used a screen even close to as large as the model Tesla used, and it instantly became a symbol of its entire approach to building cars like mobile devices. In the brutally competitive premium car market, the gigantic display became a rare example of a feature that totally differentiates Tesla’s product from even its far newer competitors.

But rarely is the question asked: why haven’t other automakers kept up with Tesla’s competition and installed a similarly massive screen in their cars? After all, if Tesla can buy such a screen from a supplier why can’t Mercedes or Lexus?

…Tesla’s decision to use a large display that wasn’t tested to higher automotive grade standards had fairly predictable results. First the Model S and X screens were plagued by a bizarre problem that was clearly caused by thermal issues: bubbles would form on the sides of the displays and eventually leak a gooey adhesive material into the car’s interior. Tesla appeared to mostly fix this problem with its “cabin overheat protection” feature (which it sold as being to protect dogs and children, despite the fact that it held the temperature at +40C which is about the temperature where a child’s organs will start shutting down) as well as revisions to the Innolux panel. Intriguingly, a blog post at Mentor Graphics suggests that Innolux was struggling with thermal management on a screen for an unspecified “high end automobile,” ultimately concluding that “defining the boundary conditions for Innolux’s system is the responsibility of their customer, not Innolux.”

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This is from May 2019, but still relevant.
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Flywheel will shut down its virtual classes after admitting it illegally copied Peloton • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Peloton sued Flywheel in September 2018 over claims that Flywheel copied its tech-infused exercise bike and the concept of at-home streamed classes. Peloton specifically took issue with the way workout metrics were displayed on Flywheel bikes and the fact that live riders could compete against one another, like on Peloton’s platform.

Peloton also claimed a Flywheel investor misrepresented himself to Peloton CEO John Foley at a private conference by posing as a potential investor who was curious about the company’s business plans. Three months after that meeting, Flywheel launched its Fly Anywhere bike. At the time, Flywheel denied the accusation, claiming it had been working on a leaderboard-style competitive class structure years before Peloton’s signature exercise bike launched. However, Flywheel later admitted to infringing on Peloton’s patents. We don’t know the details of the settlement.

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Peloton has patents?
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Donald Trump ‘offered Julian Assange a pardon if he denied Russia link to hack’ • The Guardian

Owen Bowcott:

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Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he would say Russia was not involved in leaking Democratic party emails, a court in London has been told.

The extraordinary claim was made at Westminster magistrates court before the opening next week of Assange’s legal battle to block attempts to extradite him to the US.

Assange’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, referred to evidence alleging that the former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher had been to see Assange, now 48, while he was still in the Ecuadorian embassy in August 2017.

Assange appeared in court on Wednesday by videolink from Belmarsh prison, wearing dark tracksuit bottoms and a brown jumper over a white shirt.

A statement from Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson shows “Mr Rohrabacher going to see Mr Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks”, Fitzgerald told Westminster magistrates court.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case at Westminster, said the evidence is admissible.

White House spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told reporters: “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject.”

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Of course dozens of tweets and meetings between Trump and Rohrabacher were then provided as evidence by the internet. Completely believable that Trump would do that. Assange would be an idiot to accept it, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1247: India’s election gets deepfake-friendly, the 101-year-old bug, decoupling arguments, Razr folds (oops), and more


Voting in Wisconsin might look quaint, but yesterday it tested a new system that lets voters check their ballot was counted. CC-licensed photo by GPA Photo Archive on Flickr.

You can 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. So there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We’ve just seen the first use of deepfakes in an Indian election campaign • VICE

Nilesh Christopher:

»

On February 7, a day ahead of the Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, two videos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Manoj Tiwari criticising the incumbent Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal went viral on WhatsApp. While one video had Tiwari speak in English, the other was him speaking in the Hindi dialect of Haryanvi. “[Kejriwal] cheated us on the basis of promises. But now Delhi has a chance to change it all. Press the lotus button on February 8 to form the Modi-led government,” he said.

One may think that this 44-second monologue might be a part of standard political outreach, but there is one thing that’s not standard: these videos were not real. This is what the original video was.

It’s 2020, and deepfakes have become a powerful and concerning, tool that allows humans to manipulate or fabricate visual and audio content on the internet to make it seem very real. They are like the face animations in Hollywood films, though not nearly as expensive, and with a dark side. Since its introduction in 2017, A-list celebrities have seen their faces pushed onto existing pornographic videos, making deepfakes an infamous tool for misuse.

When the Delhi BJP IT Cell partnered with political communications firm The Ideaz Factory to create “positive campaigns” using deepfakes to reach different linguistic voter bases, it marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India. “Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media and IT for BJP Delhi, tells VICE.

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This seems like a legitimate use – it’s not deceptive, apart perhaps from the question of whether the politician speaks the language. But good dubbing could do the same. (Thanks Nilesh for the link! And yes, writers are allowed to suggest links to their own stories. Don’t be shy. My DMs are open on Twitter.)
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Home Office tells man, 101, his parents must confirm ID • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:

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A 101-year-old Italian man who has been in London since 1966 was asked to get his parents to confirm his identity by the Home Office after he applied to stay in the country post-Brexit.

In what appears to be a computer glitch the Home Office thought he was a one-year-old child.

Giovanni Palmiero was told that he needed the presence of his mother and father when he made his application for the EU settlement scheme at an advice centre in Islington, north London.

When the volunteer who helped Palmiero, a great-grandfather, scanned his passport into the EU settled status app to share the biometric data with the Home Office, the system misinterpreted his birth year as 2019 instead of 1919.

“I immediately noticed that something was wrong because when I scanned in his passport, it imported his biometric data not as 1919 but as 2019. It then skipped the face recognition section which is what it does with under-12s,” said Dimitri Scarlato, an activist with the campaign group the3million who also works for Inca Cgil, an organisation that helps those of Italian descent.

He was then asked whether he wanted to put in the residence details of Palmiero’s parents or proceed independently of them. “I was surprised. I phoned the Home Office and it took two calls and a half an hour for them to understand it was the app’s fault not mine,” Scarlato said.

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Ah yes, the Y1919 bug. (Though it’s an almost perfect version of the old joke from pub signs saying “free drinks for all pensioners accompanied by their parents”. Though these days, that’s almost possible.)
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Coronavirus: largest study suggests elderly and sick are most at risk • BBC News

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Health officials in China have published the first details of more than 44,000 cases of Covid-19, in the biggest study since the outbreak began.

Data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) finds that more than 80% of the cases have been mild, with the sick and elderly most at risk.

The research also points to the high risk to medical staff.

A hospital director in the city of Wuhan died from the virus on Tuesday.

Liu Zhiming, 51, was the director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan – one of the leading hospitals in the virus epicentre. He is one of the most senior health officials to die so far.

Hubei, whose capital is Wuhan, is the worst affected province in the country. The report by the CCDC shows the province’s death rate is 2.9% compared with 0.4% in the rest of the country.

The findings put the overall death rate of the Covid-19 virus at 2.3%.

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A fabulous piece of untrue news that’s being spread around is that Covid-19 is like the 1918 Spanish flu, having the worst effects on the young and fit. Nope – like normal flu, it’s worse for the elderly (and, I’d imagine, immunocompromised).
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Qanon deploys ‘information warfare’ to influence the 2020 election • WIRED

Elise Thomas:

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The number of Qanon adherents is unknown, but believed to be small. But Qanon followers wield outsized influence because of their presence on other social media, particularly Twitter. According to Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University, there were 22,232,285 tweets using #Qanon and related hashtags such as #Q, #Qpatriot, and #TheGreatAwakening in 2019—an average of 60,910 per day. The total exceeded other popular hashtags such as #MeToo (5,231,928 tweets in 2019) or #climatechange (7,510,311 tweets).

The movement also is important because of its influence on Trump and his allies. “I doubt that President Trump believes that there’s someone in his inner circle leaking stories as ‘Q-Clearance Patriot’”, says Ethan Zuckerman, Director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, who has previously written about the impact of Qanon on politics and society. “But anyone who’s worked with Trump—in his business as well as presidential contexts—knows that Trump needs constant praise and soothing, and I suspect many Q-related memes make it to the president’s attention as his aides try to stroke his ego.”

“I don’t see this as an intentional or instrumental relationship, but it’s easy to see how it could benefit both sides,” Zuckerman says.

The confluence of interests enables Qanon conspiracists to launder ideas into the mainstream in potentially dangerous ways. Like many other social movements born on the chan boards, the Qanon movement has had undertones of violence.

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And overtones of stupid. The question of how many people are involved does seem important; the question of whether they could have any real influence on how people (other than themselves) vote follows on from that.
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Wisconsin partners with Microsoft and VotingWorks for pilot test of new voting technology • Wisconsin Elections Commission

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The Wisconsin Elections Commission, Rock County and the Town of Fulton are partnering with Microsoft and VotingWorks to test new voting technology at the Spring Primary on Tuesday, February 18.

Voters in the Town of Fulton will test a voting system that uses Microsoft’s new ElectionGuard software that allows voters to verify that their ballot was counted.  And because this is a test, local election officials will be hand counting all paper ballots voters cast to verify the winners. 

“Wisconsin is a leader in developing technology for election administration and security, so we’re eager to see this new technology in a polling place being used by real voters,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “We hope this pilot test will give us further insights into how the system works and whether voters like it. We can use this data as we try to make elections in Wisconsin even more secure, usable and accessible.”

Microsoft’s ElectionGuard is open-source software which any voting equipment maker is free to use in its existing products.  ElectionGuard generates a ballot tracking code which voters can use to verify their vote counted in the final tally.  Each vote is recorded and encrypted on a touchscreen ballot marking device as well as printed on a paper ballot.  Anyone may download the software and test its security. Technical information about ElectionGuard is available on Microsoft’s website.

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So, yesterday. Wonder how many excited voters there will be checking that their vote was counted, and whether the system for checking will crash under the load. Note – since you might hear it elsewhere – this is *not* online voting.
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‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’ • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

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The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”

Having performed that ritual, you ward off the evil spirits. You isolate the thing you’re talking about from all the concepts attached to it. So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.

Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.

As a high-decoupler, Harris thought that it was OK to talk about what-ifs; if there are genetic components to racial differences, then we still need to treat everyone with equal dignity, etc: “I’m not saying there are, but if there are…” He thought he’d performed the ritual.

But for Klein, the editor of Vox, the ritual was not strong enough.

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This is a fabulous piece, which goes over the high/low decoupling concept and then goes into the Andrew Sabisky row, which emerges from it: Sabisky’s complaint about being misquoted arises, in part (but only in part) from the media’s (intentional?) failure to decouple.
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The messy, secretive reality behind OpenAI’s bid to save the world • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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There are two prevailing technical theories about what it will take to reach AGI [artificial general intelligence]. In one, all the necessary techniques already exist; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to scale and assemble them. In the other, there needs to be an entirely new paradigm; deep learning, the current dominant technique in AI, won’t be enough.

Most researchers fall somewhere between these extremes, but OpenAI has consistently sat almost exclusively on the scale-and-assemble end of the spectrum. Most of its breakthroughs have been the product of sinking dramatically greater computational resources into technical innovations developed in other labs.

Brockman and Sutskever deny that this is their sole strategy, but the lab’s tightly guarded research suggests otherwise. A team called “Foresight” runs experiments to test how far they can push AI capabilities forward by training existing algorithms with increasingly large amounts of data and computing power. For the leadership, the results of these experiments have confirmed its instincts that the lab’s all-in, compute-driven strategy is the best approach.

For roughly six months, these results were hidden from the public because OpenAI sees this knowledge as its primary competitive advantage. Employees and interns were explicitly instructed not to reveal them, and those who left signed nondisclosure agreements. It was only in January that the team, without the usual fanfare, quietly posted a paper on one of the primary open-source databases for AI research. People who experienced the intense secrecy around the effort didn’t know what to make of this change. Notably, another paper with similar results from different researchers had been posted a month earlier.

In the beginning, this level of secrecy was never the intention, but it has since become habitual. Over time, the leadership has moved away from its original belief that openness is the best way to build beneficial AGI.

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Can you solve the “Hanging Cable” problem, used as an Amazon interview question? • Boing Boing

Mark Frauenfelder:

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A cable of 80 meters is hanging from the top of two poles that are both 50 meters off the ground. What is the distance between the two poles (to one decimal point) if the center cable is (a) 20 meters off the ground and (b) 10 meters off the ground?

Presh Talwalker of Mind Your Decisions says the above riddle was used as an Amazon interview question. His video has the answer.

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Talwalker points out that it’s the second of these two questions which was asked in the Amazon interview, not the first. That turns out to be important.
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Our Motorola Razr’s display is already breaking and peeling at the fold • Input Mag

Raymond Wong:

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The Motorola Razr nightmare continues. A week after we purchased and reviewed the foldable phone, the plastic OLED display on our $1,500 device is now peeling apart… at the fold. We always try our best to not be alarmist, but when a giant horizontal air bubble appears literally out of nowhere and starts separating the top lamination and the display panel, we have to wonder why anyone would be optimistic about foldable phones.

Let’s recap what happened. My boss, Input editor-in-chief Josh, got the Razr a little over a week ago and has been using it on and off since. I picked up the phone yesterday afternoon and only used it to take 23 photos yesterday evening. I brought it home, set up my own Google accounts, and took a few pics of the phone’s retro mode.

As far as I could tell, the Razr’s display was in perfect condition this morning and afternoon. I even took a photo of the Razr for a friend at 12:18 p.m. ET and there was no damage at the fold.

And then I saw it…

…The screen’s damage isn’t just cosmetic. The touchscreen is semi-broken; the warped surface makes touches and taps virtually unresponsive, especially when tapping things in a list like inside the Settings app.

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Gotta know when to hold ’em, gotta know when to fold ’em, gotta know when not to buy ’em.
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US weighs new move to limit China’s access to chip technology • WSJ

Asa Fitch and Bob Davis:

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The Trump administration is weighing new trade restrictions on China that would limit the use of American chip-making equipment, as it seeks to cut off Chinese access to key semiconductor technology, according to people familiar with the plan.

The Commerce Department is drafting changes to the so-called foreign direct product rule, which restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products. The changes could allow the agency to require chip factories worldwide to get licenses if they intend to use American equipment to produce chips for Huawei Technologies Co., according to the people familiar with the discussions. Chinese companies are bound to see the action as a threat to them too, which is a goal of the proposed rule, said the people briefed on the effort.

The move is aimed at slowing China’s technological advancement but could risk disrupting the global supply chain for semiconductors and dent growth for many U.S. companies, U.S. industry participants said.

The changes have been under discussion for weeks, according to the people, but were only recently proposed, and would come in addition to a separate rule that would limit the ability of U.S. companies to supply Huawei from their overseas facilities.

Not everyone within the administration supports the idea, and the changes haven’t been reviewed by President Trump, several of the people said.

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The requirement on chip foundries sounds bizarre; it’s like telling someone where they can drive in the car you sold them. It’s extraterritorial, and would surely come under judicial review in whichever country (TSMC, which operates in China, is the obvious target). And if the US government stopped exports of that equipment, China would surely step into the breach and make it itself – if it isn’t already.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1246: Apple warns on revenues, how cars make you fat (proven!), police say don’t Ring us, a Tesla teardown, the edgiest coronavirus cash-in, and more


Huawei couldn’t develop Face ID – so the Chinese government helped it out with a database of faces, a former Apple director says CC-licensed photo by jmarello on Flickr.

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

The age of cooptation: the high cost of doing business in Xi’s China • SupChina

Doug Guthrie is a former Apple senior director who was based in Shanghai:

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Huawei is often first in line for taking advantage of what these suppliers have learned from Apple. Sometime around 2015, there were rumors in the Chinese smartphone manufacturing community of something called FaceID (leading up to the launch of the iPhone X). There were also rumors of a hardware module, which would make FaceID possible. The rumors were that this would be a significant leap in innovation for Apple, and it would likely create a significant gap between Apple and its competitors. There were also rumors that Huawei was attempting to entice Chinese suppliers to reveal some of the secrets behind the new hardware module. This is the story I wanted Ken Hu and Madame Chen to confirm for me.

Huawei realized it would be a serious setback for the company if it didn’t have something similar to Apple’s FaceID, and Huawei went to the government for help. Initially, Huawei hoped the government would put some heat on Apple and force the suppliers to loosen up a little bit. Surprisingly, the government said the following (I am paraphrasing here, based on my conversation with Madame Chen):

Government: Forget about Apple suppliers on this issue.

Huawei: We can’t ignore this. It will be a serious competitive advantage for Apple iPhones if we don’t have something comparable.

Government: We did not say forget about FaceID, just forget about following Apple on hardware. What if we gave you access to a database of 1.4 billion faces and you used that database to develop an AI algorithm to recognize faces? Could you develop an AI solution rather than a hardware solution?

And that’s what Huawei did. The Chinese Government, which has probably been more aggressive (and intrusive) in collecting data through facial recognition than any government in the world, was offering to turn over a database of faces to a private company to build an AI algorithm for facial recognition.

Think about this: The Chinese Government was offering to make all of its facial recognition data available to a private company to help this company compete with an international, publicly-traded competitor. This type of coordination between the Chinese Government and the private sector would have been unthinkable six years ago. But what did Huawei owe the Chinese government as a result?

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How China’s coronavirus incompetence endangered the world • Foreign Policy

Laurie Garrett:

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This is much more than inside-baseball Chinese politics. It matters deeply for businesses wondering how long the pain of China’s shutdown will last and for public health leaders worried about how they might handle the coronavirus should it spread inside their countries, states, or cities. It has spilled over onto WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has faced sharp criticism—even a recall petition—for his meetings with Xi and other Chinese leaders and his apparent reluctance to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.

For his part, Xi disappeared from public view the day after his January 27 meeting the WHO’s Ghebreyesus, not to be seen again for twelve days, when he briefly strolled through the Chaoyang district of Beijing, wearing a medical mask.

The political crisis in China is prompting global concern about the reliability of epidemic data released by the Chinese government, the usefulness of Chinese guidance regarding how the virus is spread and who is at risk for death, and the measures best taken to protect health care workers from falling victim to the disease they are trying to treat. Since the first Dec. 30 announcement of a new disease in Wuhan, the CCP has woven a tapestry of narratives, primarily for domestic political purposes, aligning official case and death numbers with the storylines. Meanwhile, the international health community, from WHO all the way down to academic statisticians and infectious diseases analysts, has tried to infer from the dubious official daily tallies just how dangerous the coronavirus disease may be for the rest of the world.

The bottom line is trust, which appears to be waning inside China and is increasingly unraveling across the public health world.

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Coronavirus: Apple warns on revenue guidance due to iPhone delays in China • CNBC

Amelia Lucas:

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The company initially said that it expected to report net sales between $63bn to $67bn in its fiscal second quarter. Apple did not provide a new forecast for its fiscal second-quarter revenue on Monday.

The company said it provided a wider range than usual in late January, citing the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak.

“As you can see from the range, anticipates some level of issue there. Otherwise, we would not have a $4 billion range,” CEO Tim Cook said at the time.

Apple makes most iPhones and other products in China. The Coronavirus has caused it to temporarily halt production and close retail stores in China. Some Apple retail stores reopened in China with reduced schedules last week.

The company said Monday it is “experiencing a slower return to normal conditions than we had anticipated” after the extended Lunar New Year holiday. All iPhone manufacturing facilities in China have reopened, but Apple said it still expects supply shortages of the phone globally.

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There’s a feeling that the revenue will come in below the lower end of that number. Or possibly Apple doesn’t quite know itself, given the uncertainty, and the fact that its quarter runs to the end of March – so much depends on how quickly things return to normal. It’s not clear whether the epidemic has peaked yet.
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Does owning a car hurt your health? • The Globe and Mail

Alex Hutshinson:

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To really establish that driving hurts your health, in other words, you need a randomized trial. But who’s going to assign long-term car ownership on the basis of a coin flip?

The city of Beijing, it turns out. Because of mounting congestion, Beijing has limited the number of new car permits it issues to 240,000 a year since 2011. Those permits are issued in a monthly lottery with more than 50 losers for every winner – and that, as researchers from the University of California Berkeley, Renmin University in China and the Beijing Transport Institute recently reported in the British Medical Journal, provides an elegant natural experiment on the health effects of car ownership.

Led by Berkeley economist Michael Anderson, the researchers followed 180 permit winners and 757 losers for roughly five years, and looked for differences caused by the acquisition of a car.

“The randomization of the lottery is what gives us confidence,” Anderson explained in a statement. “We know that the winners should be comparable to the losers on all attributes other than car ownership.”

Not surprisingly, the winners took 2.9 fewer rides a week on Beijing’s dense public-transit network, representing a 45% drop in usage. They also spent 24.2 fewer minutes each day day walking or biking than the non-winners, a 54% drop.

You’d expect these behaviour changes to have health impacts. Over all, the winners gained an average of just more than two kilograms, a difference that was not statistically significant. But the effects were more obvious when looking only at winners aged 50 or older: They gained an average of 10.3kg, a statistically significant and worrisome increase.

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Boris Johnson adviser quits over race and eugenics controversy • The Guardian

Rowena Mason:

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Andrew Sabisky, who was brought into Downing Street by Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings as part of his appeal for “misfits and weirdos”, became the subject of intense media scrutiny after details emerged of his views on subjects ranging from black people’s IQs to whether benefits claimants should be encouraged to have fewer children.

But amid mounting criticism within the Conservative party after No 10 stood by the appointment, Sabisky said that he would be stepping down as a “contractor” to No 10.

He tweeted: “The media hysteria about my old stuff online is mad but I wanted to help [the government] not be a distraction. Accordingly I’ve decided to resign as a contractor. I hope No 10 hires more [people with] good geopolitical forecasting track records and that media learn to stop selective quoting.”

The news of Sabisky’s exit came despite the government’s apparent determination to ride out the controversy, with a Downing Street spokesman refusing to answer more than 30 questions from reporters on whether Boris Johnson agreed with Sabisky’s views.

His resignation represents a defeat for Cummings, Johnson’s most powerful aide, whose abrasive approach to government is causing consternation among some Tories and is thought to be partly behind Sajid Javid’s departure as chancellor.

Sabisky, a 27-year-old who describes himself as a “superforecaster”, had been contracted to work on special projects for Cummings, who had said in a job ad that he was seeking a team “to find and exploit, without worrying about media noise… ‘very high leverage ideas’ [that] these will almost inevitably seem bad to most.”

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This was a car crash waiting to happen as soon as Sabisky’s past postings hove into view. As some Cabinet members said, did nobody think to use a search engine on these candidates? There’s going to be some frantic deleting of posts by everyone else who’s just been hired. So there are more problems to come; it’s just delayed. Give it a few months.

Got to admit, I thought Cummings’s recruitment scheme would be better organised.
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Tesla teardown finds electronics six years ahead of Toyota and VW • Nikkei Asian Review

Hideyoshi Kume:

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Toyota Motor and Volkswagen each sell 10 million cars, give or take, every year. Tesla delivered about 367,500 in 2019. But when it comes to electronics technology, Elon Musk’s scrappy company is far ahead of the industry giants.

This is the takeaway from Nikkei Business Publications’ teardown of the Model 3, the most affordable car in the U.S. automaker’s all-electric lineup, starting at about $33,000.

What stands out most is Tesla’s integrated central control unit, or “full self-driving computer.” Also known as Hardware 3, this little piece of tech is the company’s biggest weapon in the burgeoning EV market. It could end the auto industry supply chain as we know it.

One stunned engineer from a major Japanese automaker examined the computer and declared, “We cannot do it.”

The module — released last spring and found in all new Model 3, Model S and Model X vehicles — includes two custom, 260-sq.-millimeter AI chips. Tesla developed the chips on its own, along with special software designed to complement the hardware. The computer powers the cars’ self-driving capabilities as well as their advanced in-car “infotainment” system.

This kind of electronic platform, with a powerful computer at its core, holds the key to handling heavy data loads in tomorrow’s smarter, more autonomous cars. Industry insiders expect such technology to take hold around 2025 at the earliest.

That means Tesla beat its rivals by six years. The implications for the broader auto industry are huge and — for some — frightening.

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Interesting if true. It would mirror the reaction at BlackBerry when they first got their hands on an iPhone and couldn’t believe that the demonstration hadn’t been faked.
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How a Chinese movie studio upturned its business model due to coronavirus • The Conversation

Mark Greeven:

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due to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, most movie theatres were empty and nearly 70,000 had to close their doors for fear of spreading the disease.

Huanxi stood to lose millions on its New Year-themed movie Lost in Russia. The company had committed to a theatrical minimum guarantee deal and expected billions of renminbi (RMB) in gross box office revenues. But now the theatres were closed, what should they do?

Studies have shown how Chinese businesses typically respond quickly to crises and with innovative solutions and agility. Agility is about linking hyper-awareness with decision-making and decision-making with action – all at speed.

In a clear demonstration of agility, Huanxi decided to fundamentally change its distribution approach and turned to an unlikely partner: ByteDance. ByteDance is the Chinese company behind the blockbuster app TikTok along with a number of native Chinese apps like Douyin, Jinri Toutiao, Xigua Video and Huoshan Video.

Despite the fact that ByteDance boasted hundreds of millions of daily active users, it was not an obvious partner. The company’s video streaming sites tend to focus on short form, user-generated content. TikTok, for instance, caps videos at 15 seconds. Lost In Russia, by contrast, was over two hours long. Chinese digital giants Alibaba or Tencent might have been more obvious partners, except that both owned competing movie studios.

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Google ends its free Wi-Fi program Station • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

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Caesar Sengupta, VP of Payments and Next Billion Users at Google, said the program, launched in 2015, helped millions of users surf the internet — a first for many — and not worry about the amount of data they consumed. But as mobile data prices got cheaper in many markets, including India, Google Station was no longer as necessary, he said. The company plans to discontinue the program this year.

Additionally, it had become difficult for Google to find a sustainable business model to scale the program, the company said, which in recent years expanded Station to Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Nigeria, Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam. The company launched the program in South Africa just three months ago.

Over the years, Google also explored ways to monetize the Google Station program. The company, for instance, began showing an ad when a user signed in to connect to its internet service.

In an interview early last year, Gulzar Azad, who spearheads connectivity efforts for Google in India, told me that the company was thinking about ways to scale Station to more markets, but noted that as far as deployment at Indian railway stations was concerned, Google had reached its goal (to serve 400 railway stations).

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Must have cost a pretty penny, but achieved what it wanted: force others to push mobile data.
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Cute videos, but little evidence: police say Amazon Ring isn’t much of a crime fighter • NBC News

Cyrus Farivar:

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Ring promises to “make neighbourhoods safer” by deterring and helping to solve crimes, citing its own research that says an installation of its doorbell cameras reduces burglaries by more than 50 percent. But an NBC News Investigation has found — after interviews with 40 law enforcement agencies in eight states that have partnered with Ring for at least three months — that there is little concrete evidence to support the claim.

Three agencies said the ease with which the public can share Ring videos means officers spend time reviewing clips of non-criminal issues such as racoons and petty disagreements between neighbors. Others noted that the flood of footage generated by Ring cameras rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.

Thirteen of the 40 jurisdictions reached, including Winter Park, said they had made zero arrests as a result of Ring footage. Thirteen were able to confirm arrests made after reviewing Ring footage, while two offered estimates. The rest, including large cities like Phoenix, Miami, and Kansas City, Missouri, said that they don’t know how many arrests had been made as a result of their relationship with Ring — and therefore could not evaluate its effectiveness — even though they had been working with the company for well over a year.

Ring’s rise also comes at a time when reports of property crimes, including package theft and burglaries, are already in steep decline across the United States.

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A year feels like too short a time to be certain, but you’d hope they’d have an inkling by now.
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Facial ID Respirator Masks

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We make N95 respiratory masks that work with facial recognition software.
Our masks are custom printed with your face making phone access easy during viral epidemics.

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This may mark some sort of ultimate “got lemons, make lemonade” move. Pandemic making it hard to unlock your phone? Capitalism has the answer! Although – small mercy – they’re not in production yet because of, oh, a shortage of available face masks. Surely will be a line in a comedy some day.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1245: HQTrivia asks its last, how to beat job-hire software, coronavirus scares and shows, looking back at LG’s Prada, and more


After the iPlayer, the BBC had an ambitious plan to disrupt TV – but regulators killed it CC-licensed photo by Dan Taylor-Watt on Flickr.

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

HQ Trivia, the once-popular mobile game, is shutting down • CNN

Kerry Flynn:

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The company behind the once-popular live mobile trivia game is shutting down, CNN Business has learned. HQ will part ways with 25 full-time employees.

When HQ launched in 2017, its first game HQ Trivia quickly attracted millions of people across the world who stopped whatever they were doing twice a day to play the game on their smartphones. The company was profiled by The New York Times and its original host Scott Rogowsky became a household name, appearing on programs like NBC’s “Today” show.

But over the next year, the game’s popularity faded and its parent company was hit with a series of setbacks. The company grappled with internal turmoil, including the death of HQ cofounder Colin Kroll, who died in December 2018 from a drug overdose.

CEO Rus Yusupov said in a company-wide email on Friday that “lead investors are no longer willing to fund the company, and so effective today, HQ will cease operations and move to dissolution.”

In the email, which was obtained by CNN Business, Yusupov also disclosed that the company had hired a banker “to help find additional investors and partners to support the expansion of the company.” He said the company had “received an offer from an established business” and was expected to close the deal on Saturday, but the potential acquisition fell through.

In recent months, HQ tried to expand its audience by launching new products, including a photo challenge game in December called HQX.

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They wanted to be the future of TV; and maybe a successor will be. It seems inevitable that at some point a mobile app like this – appointment “TV” – will get big enough to become embedded and self-sustaining on mobile. But this company was too screwed up.

You can bet the folk at Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, are feeling a little itchy though.
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Cost-cutting algorithms are making your job search a living hell • VICE

Nick Keppler:

»

Manoeuvering around algorithmic gatekeepers to reach an actual person with a say in hiring has become a crucial skill, even if the tasks involved feel duplicitous and absurd. ATS [Applicant Tracking System] software can also enable a company to discriminate, possibly unwittingly, based on bias-informed data and culling of certain psychological traits.

Lynne Williams, a Philadelphia-area career advisor, holds a seminar called “Beating the Applicant Tracking System.” Every time, she braces for a wave of anger from the audience. “I can feel their blood pressure rise when I tell them what they are doing wrong,” she said.

Their most important task, she tells crowds of jobseekers, is to parrot keywords from job descriptions. The most basic elimination function of most ATS software is searching résumés and cover letters for keywords. Many systems can’t—or don’t bother to—distinguish synonyms, like “manager” and “supervisor,” so she says to rewrite résumés with each application, mindlessly copying words from the job description. Countless online guides for “beating the bots” recommend the same.

People find this task frustrating and are indignant over its irrelevance to their fitness for the job, Williams said. Others fume about all the time spent carefully crafting applications that were probably never seen by a human.

Jack Wei, a director of product marketing for the job site SmartRecruiters, said that “the moment a candidate applies [for a posted job], a ‘smart profile’ scrapes résumé info into a digital portfolio by extracting keywords.” The employer then sees an automatically generated score, from 1 to 5, of their apparent fitness for the job.

«

But is the software more, less or just as biased as the humans who used to do all that? But it has brought some old tricks back to life:

»

ATS technology encourages applicants to find ways to cut in line, said Anjunwa. She has heard stories of people inserting common keywords in small white font on their PDF résumés, visible only to bots, to sneak into the next tier of candidates.

«

Just as used to happen to search before Google.
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How the BBC’s Netflix-killing plan was snuffed by myopic regulation • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:

»

It all started in 2007, in a Shepherd’s Bush pub where Ashley Highfield was having a pint and mulling over a bold plan. As the director of technology and new media at the BBC, Highfield had just overseen the launch of the iPlayer – BBC’s online catch-up service. Now he wanted to try and build a commercial equivalent that would earn more. For that reason that he was meeting over drinks with Ben McOwen-Wilson, then head of strategy at ITV.

Scribbling on the back of a coaster, the two mapped out the plan for a British digital television streaming service which would feature selected Hollywood films alongside content from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. That service would be named Kangaroo.

The premise was simple: it would be the best of British television, co-owned by the three broadcasters, fully committed to the project. It was a prototypical Britbox, the streaming service that the British networks finally set up in 2017, but according to Highfield it would have packed a heavier punch thanks to a broader range of content, including rights to American films.

“I think the difference [with Britbox is] that each of the players realises this is too little, too late, and will therefore hedge their bets,” says Highfield, who now works outside the TV industry, in a yacht-making business. Back then, he says, there was impetus to act as the battle was not yet lost.

“Each of the big players was desperate to not be wrong-footed by the emergence of players like Hulu and Sky’s growing dominance in this area.” There were also rumours swirling of other streaming platforms that could come in and steal audience share. “The stars aligned in a way that took ten years to even partially align again.”

The birth of the iPlayer itself had been difficult, according to a source present at the time in the BBC, who asked not to be named because they still work for the organisation. “It faced huge resistance internally from TV,” they say. Digital was considered the “weird sibling” of television and radio before the internet content boom, and commissioners in traditional broadcast were worried digital services would cannibalise their audiences. Some were still stuck in a 20th century mentality, and couldn’t understand the appeal of on-demand viewing.

«

Terrific article, and so timely as idiots in the government try to tear apart the BBC because they can’t bear journalistic inquiry.
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YouTube has been cracking down on coronavirus hoaxes, but they are still going viral • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick:

»

If you search “coronavirus” or “Wuhan” on YouTube — even in incognito mode, which removes customization from the search results — you’ll see high-quality content from verified news providers. But that doesn’t mean that hoaxes about the virus aren’t being watched on the platform in huge numbers.

BuzzFeed News viewed a list on Monday of 500 of the most-watched YouTube videos featuring the keyword “coronavirus”, according to the social metrics dashboard BuzzSumo. Many of the top videos are from news agencies like Britain’s Channel 4 News, the South China Morning Post, and BBC News. But that list also contains dozens of popular videos that feature unconfirmed or false information about the virus. In some cases, videos have earned millions of views with claims that the virus is an engineered bioweapon, that it originated from Chinese people eating “bat soup,” or that the death count is actually 10 times higher than reported. As of Wednesday, there were more than 45,210 reported cases of the virus, with 99% in China, and 1,118 deaths.

YouTube has waged a well-documented battle over the last year against the conga line of conspiracy theories that dance below the surface of the platform. Last February, the company demonetized anti-vax content. Last March, it announced it would be showing “information panels” — text widgets that offer debunks from the site’s fact-checking partners — on searches for topics “prone to misinformation”.

«

Love the phrase “conga line of conspiracy theories”.
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Facebook canceled a 5,000-person conference in San Francisco because of coronavirus • Vox

Shirin Ghaffary:

»

Facebook is canceling an annual marketing conference it was planning to host in San Francisco next month over concerns about the new coronavirus — now officially known as Covid-19.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we canceled our Global Marketing Summit due to evolving public health risks related to coronavirus,” Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison said in a statement to Recode.

The social media giant confirmed that it has scratched its plan to hold the event for 5,000 international attendees at the Moscone Center on March 9-12, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the latest sign of how the outbreak, which has taken the lives of nearly 1,400 people as of Friday, is impacting business in the tech industry. Earlier this week, the world’s biggest phone show, Mobile World Conference, canceled its event in Barcelona after major tech companies like Amazon pulled out of the event.

But the Facebook marketing summit is the first publicly reported example of an event in the San Francisco Bay Area being canceled due to the virus. While there are four cases of novel coronavirus in Silicon Valley, public health officials say that the handful of cases are contained to those who either recently traveled to Hubei, where the virus started, or had close contact with family members who did.

That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley from worrying — particularly because of the high level of travel between the area and China.

«

“Coronavirus” in the headline, Covid-19 in the story: so you can see that the name recognition isn’t quite there. Let’s hope that the recognition stays that low.
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IBM pulls out of RSA over coronavirus fears • Protocol

Adam Janofsky:

»

Just days after MWC organizers canceled its Barcelona trade show, another major tech conference is in flux over coronavirus fears.

IBM on Friday said that it is pulling out of RSA, one of the cybersecurity industry’s largest events that’s set to take place in San Francisco from Feb. 24 to 28.

“The health of IBMers continues to be our primary concern as we monitor upcoming events and travel relative to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19),” an IBM spokesperson said in an email to Protocol. “As a result, we are canceling our participation in this year’s RSA conference.”

IBM is one of the biggest sponsors at RSA, which hosts more than 40,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors. RSA organizers said that the conference planned to proceed as scheduled at the George R. Moscone Convention Center. In a public statement issued late Friday, they added, “We understand and respect [IBM’s] decision.”

Seven other exhibitors — six of them from China — have dropped out, according to the statement, and less than 1% of attendees have cancelled their registration. Conference organizers at Moscone have added health and safety measures, such as offering disinfectant wipes at all check-in counters.

«

COVID-19 is just on the edge of becoming a pandemic – defined as a disease that is causing new infections on every continent. Hence all the fretting.
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Google has released a tool to spot faked and doctored images • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

»

Jigsaw, a technology incubator at Google, has released an experimental platform called Assembler to help journalists and front-line fact-checkers quickly verify images.

How it works: Assembler combines several existing techniques in academia for detecting common manipulation techniques, including changing image brightness and pasting copied pixels elsewhere to cover up something while retaining the same visual texture. It also includes a detector that spots deepfakes of the type created using StyleGAN, an algorithm that can generate realistic imaginary faces. These detection techniques feed into a master model that tells users how likely it is that an image has been manipulated. 

Why it matters: Fake images are among the harder things to verify, especially with the rise of manipulation by artificial intelligence. The window of opportunity for journalists and fact-checkers to react is also rapidly shrinking, as disinformation spreads at speed and scale.

Not a panacea: Assembler is a good step in fighting manipulated media—but it doesn’t cover many other existing manipulation techniques, including those used for video, which the team will need to add and update as the ecosystem keeps evolving. It also still exists as a separate platform from the channels where doctored images are usually distributed.

«

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Data brokers are cruising for a bruising • WIRED

Anouk Ruhaak:

»

Data brokers should be held accountable for the negative externalities they inflict on society. There will always be criminals online, and new regulations will never fully deter them. But governments can deter the complicit middlemen — the data brokers with little security and fewer scruples. While data brokers are often sued for damages if data is breached when it’s in the possession of those they sell to (e.g., Equifax in 2017 and Exactis in 2018), they are not held accountable for data breached by those they sell to, nor are their executives tried for fraud. What if instead they had to answer for the consequent fraud and abuse? What if authorities like the Federal Communications Commission had a strong mandate to punish data brokers for their role in leaks and breaches?

To make companies responsible for the actions of buyers or sellers up or down the supply chain is not a new idea. The UK Modern Slavery Act was specifically designed to hold large UK manufacturers responsible for human rights violations by their contractors or subsidiaries down the chain. Similarly, anyone importing goods into the EU is responsible for the use of toxic chemicals anywhere in the production cycle, even if that part of the chain is not directly controlled by the importing company. It’s a tried and tested methodology to prevent corporations from passing the buck down the supply chain.

In a similar vein, we could hold data brokers responsible for any breaches involving data sold by them. What could such regulations look like?

«

Good suggestions, and it’s totally true that data brokers bring negative externalities. They’re a sort of radioactive waste repository, but with data.
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Labour urges Johnson adviser sacking after eugenics support • Financial Times

Laura Hughes:

»

Boris Johnson is facing calls from Labour to sack a 27-year-old adviser who praised the merits of eugenics and reportedly called for “universal contraception” to prevent a “permanent underclass”.

Andrew Sabisky, a researcher who describes himself as a “super-forecaster”, was appointed after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, invited maverick freethinkers and “assorted weirdos” to apply for Downing Street jobs.

Speaking to Schools Week in 2016, Mr Sabisky said: “Eugenics are about selecting ‘for’ good things. Intelligence is largely inherited and correlates with better outcomes: physical health, income, lower mental illness.”

In the same interview he suggested that the widespread prescription of modafinil, an anti-narcolepsy drug, would be worth the death of a child a year. “From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year,” he said.

In a 2014 post on a website run by Mr Cummings, the Mail on Sunday reported Mr Sabisky called for “universal contraception” to prevent a “permanent underclass”.

«

As some Tories have been asking, did nobody think to use Google before hiring him? If this is the quality of Cummings’s “weirdos”, then they’re living up to that part of their name.

Governments can come unstuck remarkably fast as this stuff builds up. We’re barely three months into this one.
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The 2006 LG Prada was the first capacitive touchscreen phone. But… • Android Authority

C Scott Brown roamed eBay to find an original LG Prada, launched 13 years ago (and thus coming before the iPhone in terms of availability, if not widely recognised demonstration). It’s lacking in pretty much every way, and then there’s this:

»

The first Android smartphone wouldn’t land until 2008 as the HTC Dream (or the T-Mobile G1 in some areas). As such, the LG Prada does not run on Android. Instead, it runs on a proprietary operating system built on Flash that we’re just going to call Prada UI.

Remember that prior to the KE850, there were no capacitive touchscreen smartphones. You either had buttons, a trackball, or a stylus for interfacing with your smartphone display. So LG couldn’t just use the touchscreen OS of choice on the Prada because there wasn’t a touchscreen OS of choice.

This, ultimately, is where LG massively drops the ball. This was an opportunity for the company to set the groundwork on an operating system built with human touch distinctly in mind. Instead, what did LG do? It essentially transferred the operating system of a feature phone and made it touch-capable and called it a day.

As an example of what I mean, the LG Prada does not have a software keyboard. If you want to compose a text message you are presented with an on-screen numeric keypad and need to use T9 entry. For those of you too young to know what that is, that’s when you tap a number a certain number of times to pick a letter and then move on to the next letter.

The iPhone, meanwhile, had a full QWERTY keyboard that would appear on the screen, instantly making T9 seem like it came from the stone age.

«

But LG was a phone maker, whereas Apple was a computer maker. Of course you’d have a QWERTY keyboard on a computer. Of course you’d have T9 on a phone. That’s why the iPhone was low-end disruption for PCs, not high-end disruption for phones – though it turned out to do that too.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1244: Huawei faces new charges in US, left-wing YouTubers arise!, how UK council sites surveil citizens, niche science preprints in trouble, and more


Can’t hack this – unlike the app called Voatz, which turns out to have huge security holes. CC-licensed photo by Keith Bryant on Flickr.

You can 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.

U.S. charges China’s Huawei with racketeering and conspiracy to steal US trade secrets in new indictment • The Washington Post

Jeanne Whalen:

»

The new charges accuse Huawei and its subsidiaries of a decades-long effort to steal intellectual property from U.S. tech companies, including by offering Huawei employees bonuses for obtaining confidential information, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said Thursday.

Huawei’s actions violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, prosecutors said.

An indictment filed in federal court in Brooklyn also includes new allegations about the activities of Huawei and its subsidiaries in Iran and North Korea, countries subject to sanctions by the U.S., the European Union or the United Nations.

A Washington Post report last year detailed Huawei’s secret efforts to help the North Korean government build and maintain a wireless telecommunications network. Huawei is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of telecom equipment and smartphones.

Huawei didn’t provide an immediate comment Thursday.

The new indictment represents an escalation of a case announced last year, when federal prosecutors charged Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with bank and wire fraud.

«

This is seriously ramping up the pressure on Huawei. No Google, and the aim here is to scare not just American companies, but others too away from working with it: if it’s put on the sanctions list for dealing with North Korea, things will get worse still.
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A thorn in YouTube’s side digs in even deeper • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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Rather than swearing off YouTube, [Carlos] Maza, who is a New York-based socialist, decided to seize the means of his own video production.

“I’m going to use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house,” he said in an interview. “I want to build up an audience and use every chance I get to explain how destructive YouTube is.”

It’s not rare for YouTubers to criticize YouTube. (In fact, among top creators, it’s practically a sport.) But Mr. Maza’s critique extends to the traditional media as well. He believes that media outlets have largely failed to tell compelling stories to a generation raised on YouTube and other social platforms, and that, as a result, they have created a power vacuum that bigots and extremists have been skilled at filling.

“On YouTube, you’re competing against people who have put a lot of time and effort into crafting narrative arcs, characters, settings or just feelings they’re trying to evoke,” he said. “In that environment, what would have been considered typical video content for a newsroom — news clips, or random anchors generically repeating the news with no emotions into a camera — feels really inadequate and anaemic.”

…YouTube can be harsh terrain for a professional leftist. The site is nominally open to all views, but in practice is dominated by a strain of reactionary politics that is marked by extreme skepticism of mainstream media, disdain for left-wing “social justice warriors” and a tunnel-vision fixation on political correctness.
In recent years, some progressive YouTubers have tried to counter this trend by making punchy, opinionated videos aimed at left-wing viewers. BreadTube, a loose crew of socialist creators who named themselves after a 19th-century anarchist book, “The Conquest of Bread,” has made modest stars out of leftists like Natalie Wynn, a YouTube personality known as ContraPoints, and Oliver Thorn, a British commentator known as PhilosophyTube.

But these creators are still much less powerful than their reactionary counterparts. Mr. Maza attributes that gap to the fact that while a vast network of well-funded YouTube channels exists to push right-wing views, liberal commentary is still mainly underwritten by major news organizations, which have been slower to embrace the highly opinionated, emotionally charged style of content that works well on YouTube.

“People understand the world through stories and personalities,” he said. “People don’t actually want emotionless, thoughtless, viewpoint-less journalism, which is why no one is a Wolf Blitzer stan.”

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(A “stan” is someone who’s a mad fan. It’s not short for “stand” – it’s from the Eminem song of the same name.)
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NASA spots ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid rapidly approaching Earth • IGN

Adele Ankers:

»

NASA has confirmed that an asteroid larger than the tallest man-made structure in the world is currently travelling towards Earth at a speed of almost 34,000 miles per hour. Thankfully, it’ll likely miss us by a few million miles.

According to International Business Times, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) identified that the “potentially hazardous” asteroid could come close to intersecting with our planet’s path on [Saturday] February 15, 2020, at 6:05 a.m. (EST).

“Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are currently defined based on parameters that measure the asteroid’s potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth,” NASA said in a statement.

The colossal space rock, which is expected to pass over our planet from a distance of around 3.6 million miles, is estimated to have a diameter of around 3,250 feet, making it large enough to potentially “trigger a nuclear winter and mass extinction events” should it collide with Earth.

«

If you want to worry Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, Nasa has a list of the PHAs. There’s one every day for the next few days. Just, you know, if that would help.
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‘Sloppy’ mobile voting app used in four states has ‘elementary’ security flaws • VICE

Kim Zetter:

»

A mobile voting app being used in West Virginia and other states has elementary security flaws that would allow someone to see and intercept votes as they’re transmitted from mobile phones to the voting company’s server, new research reveals.

An attacker would also be able to alter the user’s vote and trick the user into believing their vote was transmitted accurately, researchers from the Massachusetts Technology Institute write in a paper released Thursday.

The app, called Voatz, also has problems with how it handles authentication between the voter’s mobile phone and the backend server, allowing an attacker to impersonate a user’s phone. Even more surprising, although the makers of Voatz have touted its use of blockchain technology to secure the transmission and storage of votes, the researchers found that the blockchain isn’t actually used in the way Voatz claims it is, thereby supplying no additional security to the system.

The research was conducted by Michael Specter and James Koppel, two graduate students in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and Daniel Weitzner, a research scientist with the lab.

Election security experts praised the research and said it shows that long-held concerns about mobile voting are well-founded.

«

Come on, a voting app called “Voatz”? It’s so cheesy. It’s like Steve Martin’s comic routine about what you call a bank. “You don’t call it ‘Fred’s Bank’. Nobody’s going to put their money in that. You call it ‘Security First Trust And Federal Reserve’.”
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Brave uncovers widespread surveillance of UK citizens by private companies embedded on UK council websites • Brave

Johnny Ryan is chief policy officer at Brave, an independent browser:

»

Surveillance on UK council websites”, a new report from Brave, reveals the extent of private companies’ surveillance of UK citizens when they seek help for addiction, disability, and poverty from their local government authorities.

None of the data collecting companies recorded in this study had received consent from the website visitor to lawfully process data. 

• Nearly all councils in the UK permit at least one company to learn about the behaviour of people visiting their websites
• People seeking information about disability, poverty, drugs and alcoholism services are profiled by data brokers on some council websites
• 198 council websites in the UK use the “real-time bidding” (RTB) form of advertising. Real-time bidding is the biggest data breach ever recorded in the UK. Though illegality is not in dispute, the UK Information Commissioner (ICO) has failed to act
• Google owns all five of the top embedded elements loaded by UK council websites, giving it the power to know what virtually anyone in the UK views on council sites
• Over of a quarter of the UK population is served by councils that embed Twitter, Facebook, and others on their websites, leaking data about what sensitive issues people read about to these companies.

«

Hard to believe that none of the companies had consent from the visitor; isn’t that why we’re always clicking cookie settings?
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Mac malware is growing, but there are three important riders • 9to5Mac

Ben Lovejoy:

»

Macs are not generally vulnerable to what we traditionally classify as malware: that is, code which can do nasty things like delete files, or encrypt your drive for a ransomware attack. Apple’s protections against this type of attack are extremely strong.

Macs are mostly only vulnerable to so-called adware. This does things like redirect searches or load tabs automatically to earn ad revenue for the attacker.

This is something Malwarebytes itself acknowledges when you get into the detail:

»

Macs differ drastically from Windows in terms of the types of threats seen. Where we found several different categories and families in our top detections of Windows threats that classify as traditional malware , especially those aimed at businesses, most Mac threats, and certainly the most prevalent ones of 2019, are families of adware and potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) […]

Among the top 10 Mac threats (for both consumers and businesses) are a mix of PUPs and adware. The PUPs are a variety of mostly “cleaning” apps that have been determined as unwanted not just by Malwarebytes, but by the Mac user community at large, [two of the best-known examples being] MacKeeper and MacBooster.

«

Mac malware is growing mostly due to one app.

Until last year, the top two Mac adware apps had detected installations numbered in the low hundreds of thousands. In 2019, however, one new piece of adware was detected 30 million times! That’s your dramatic growth right there: one app.

«

The graphic (on p25 of the report) shows that two malware apps comprise about 66% of instances. NewTab is the worst, a browser extension that redirects and is delivered via junky apps. And the oldest piece of malware is six years old.
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Popular preprint servers face closure because of money troubles • NAture

Smriti Mallapaty:

»

INA-Rxiv, ArabiXiv, AfricArxiv and IndiaRxiv are run by volunteers around the world, but the servers are hosted online by the non-profit Center for Open Science (COS), based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The centre’s platform hosts 26 repositories, including more than a dozen that are discipline-specific.

In December 2018, the COS informed repository managers that from 2020, it would be introducing fees, charged to repository managers, to cover maintenance costs. The charges, which were finalized last December, start at about US$1,000 a year, and increase as repositories’ annual submissions grow.

The costs can be significant, particularly for repositories run by volunteers in emerging economies. Dasapta Erwin Irawan, a hydrogeologist at the Bandung Institute of Technology who helped set up INA-Rxiv, says his repository received more than 6,000 submissions between July 2018 and June 2019, so the fees will come to about $25,000 per year, which he cannot afford. After unsuccessfully trying to raise money from the Indonesian government, he has decided to wind down the service and close it, although he has not yet set an end date.

INA-Rxiv is one of the most popular archives on the COS’s platform; it has drawn more than 16,500 submissions, including preprints and conference papers. Until INA-Rxiv closes, Irawan says, he will limit the number of submissions he accepts, to reduce costs.

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Seems pricey for what seems like a low number of submissions.
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Car ‘splatometer’ tests reveal huge decline in number of insects • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

»

Two scientific studies of the number of insects splattered by cars have revealed a huge decline in abundance at European sites in two decades.

The research adds to growing evidence of what some scientists have called an “insect apocalypse”, which is threatening a collapse in the natural world that sustains humans and all life on Earth. A third study shows plummeting numbers of aquatic insects in streams.

The survey of insects hitting car windscreens in rural Denmark used data collected every summer from 1997 to 2017 and found an 80% decline in abundance. It also found a parallel decline in the number of swallows and martins, birds that live on insects.

The second survey, in the UK county of Kent in 2019, examined splats in a grid placed over car registration plates, known as a “splatometer”. This revealed 50% fewer impacts than in 2004. The research included vintage cars up to 70 years old to see if their less aerodynamic shape meant they killed more bugs, but it found that modern cars actually hit slightly more insects.

“This difference we found is critically important, because it mirrors the patterns of decline which are being reported widely elsewhere, and insects are absolutely fundamental to food webs and the existence of life on Earth,” said Paul Tinsley-Marshall from Kent Wildlife Trust. “It’s pretty horrendous.”

«

The problem is that there’s no way to know what we, the ordinary public, should do about this, apart from worry.
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The chaos at Condé Nast • The New York Times

Katherine Rosman:

»

Since 2009, Condé Nast has gone from publishing 22 magazine brands (including one digital-only publication) to 16 magazine brands (six of which are digital only). In 2017, the company had about $120m in losses.

Mr. Peres’s reign seems to have epitomized the bloated pride before the fall. Founded by Annie Flanders as a scrappy downtown magazine in 1982, Details had gone through several iterations before being taken over by Fairchild, which was ultimately moved under the Condé Nast umbrella. With Mr. Peres as editor, the magazine was retooled as a manual for a metrosexual clinging to a certain frat boy quality, lest you call him gay.

Details had for a time what Tina Brown always used to call “buzz,” with cover models like Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Federline (twice!) and Ben Affleck. It was not so filled with ads that it was a doorstop, like the flagship magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, but it was still robust.

Freelance journalists wanted to contribute to Details (I was one, reporting a profile of Patrick Kennedy for it in 2001), and the magazine won awards for its design.

Condé Nast, which also then regularly published the magazines Gourmet, Jane, Lucky and Domino, had become famous through shows like HBO’s “Sex and the City.” The company was known for around-the-block Town Cars filled with enigmatic editors who lunched at New York restaurants like the Four Seasons and enjoyed clothing expense accounts and interest-free mortgages provided by their employer.

After being summoned at 28 from Paris where he had worked as a writer and editor for W magazine and given the top job at Details, Mr. Peres lived subsidized for months in the Morgans Hotel. Once, he trashed his room because he couldn’t find his Vicodin; he blamed the housekeeper for stealing his drugs.

«

The amazing thing that emerges from this story is that everyone who ever worked at Conde Nast seems to be writing a memoir about how amazing it was and how much they miss it. You can see why they think that.
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Apple Pay on pace to account for 10% of global card transactions • Quartz

John Detrixhe:

»

Apple’s mobile wallet is gobbling up a growing chunk of card payments around the world. As the service grows, it’s becoming a greater challenge to rivals like PayPal and attracting the attention of competition watchdogs.

Apple Pay accounts for about 5% of global card transactions and is on pace to handle 1-in-10 such payments by 2025, according to recent trend data compiled by Bernstein, a research firm. “There are indeed plenty of reasons to worry that Apple may attempt to disrupt the payments ecosystem,” Bernstein analysts, led by Harshita Rawat, wrote in a research note.

«

My initial reaction to this was “that’s got to be nonsense – someone at Bernstein has dropped a few zeros.” The story says digital payments are about $1trn in revenue, while Visa and Mastercard process more than $14trn annually, and growing.

But: assume 750m iPhone users globally (slightly under the figure estimated by Neil Cybart of Above Avalon, around the number that most people use for handy calculations). For Apple Pay to be 5% of the $1trn would make it the avenue for $50bn of transactions. Crazy? But that’s only $66 per iPhone per year paid by Apple Pay. Given its lack of payment limit, a few big spenders buying big-ticket items (such as iPhones on their Apple Credit Card, on which they get cashback) could easily make up for large numbers of non-Apple Pay users.

OK, what about the bigger, $14trn number? Well: 5% of $14trn is $700bn, or $933 per iPhone per year. Now you definitely need your big spenders to make up for those who don’t use Apple Pay, but it’s feasible: assume one user for every two non-users (so an Apple Pay user base of 250m), and it’s $2,800 per year, or a bit more than $50 every week. Some people spend that much on coffee per week. Little things add up.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1243: the app to sue robocallers, the botnet that loves you, the trouble with Equifax, Europe breaks Facebook date, adieu Essential!, and more


Mobile technology connects people who can’t be together. Looks like MWC – now canceled – will need it. CC-licensed photo by K%u0101rlis Dambr%u0101ns on Flickr.

You can 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.

Mobile World Congress cancelled over coronavirus • Financial Times

Daniel Thomas and Daniel Dombey:

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Europe’s largest telecoms conference has been forced to cancel this year’s event after companies from Deutsche Telekom and Nokia to Amazon and Vodafone refused to attend over fears of the spread of coronavirus.

Mobile World Congress is a key event for Barcelona and claims to host more than 1m business meetings for its 109,000 attendees during the four-day conference at the end of February.

Most of the big telecoms and tech groups had decided not to attend owing to the rapid spread of coronavirus, including Facebook, Amazon, Cisco and Intel, as well as European telecoms vendors such as Ericsson. Many attendees are from Asia, with groups such as Huawei among the largest exhibitors.

…The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.

It is not clear whether MWC will need to carry the heavy cost of cancelling the event, or be able to recover the money spent on the conference, which officially takes place across a series of huge hangars between the city and the airport. Discussions over costs were still being held on Wednesday night, said one person familiar with the matter.

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So the GSMA was going to put off the decision until Friday, but the cancellations tipped its hand. There will be a huge row with the insurers about whether this is covered: the GSMA had been trying to get the city of Barcelona to declare Wuhan CV a health emergency (or similar), which would have triggered an insurance payout. But the city wouldn’t.

Flights and hotels are booked, though, so there might be a shadow MWC. The big question is whether it will return.
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This app automatically cancels and sues robocallers • VICE

Edward Ongweso:

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DoNotPay’s Free Trial Card creates a virtual, one-time-use credit card to protect you from getting charged by “industrialized scams” like free trials. DoNotPay’s original offering was a chatbot lawyer program that automatically disputed parking tickets in small claims court.

Robo Revenge combines both features to automatically add you to the Do Not Call Registry, generate a virtual DoNotPay burner credit card to provide scammers when they illegally call you anyways, use the transaction information to get the scammer’s contact information, then walk you through how to sue them for as much as $3,000 per call under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a law already on the books meant to protect consumers from calls that violate the Do Not Call Registry. The app also streamlines the litigation paperwork by automatically generating demand letters and court filing documents.

“There are two types of scammers. There are the scammers based abroad who are trying to get your bank details—those people you can’t sue because you don’t even know where they are. But the type we can stop is the businesses like a U.S. based travel company trying to sell you a cruise and asking for your credit card number,” Browder said. “We can take them out with U.S. based laws. If they’re calling someone and every time they’re calling someone, there’s a risk of a penalty, maybe they’ll think twice.”

Together, new legislation and mass adoption of the app might be sufficient to overcome the technological and regulatory difficulties of reigning in illegal robocallers. Browder, however, also wants to shift some agency back into the consumer’s hands.

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Amazing stat in this story: spam calls have gone from 3.7% of (US) calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018 and were heading to 50% for 2019. Maybe a privacy law might help…?
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Botnet

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You are famous on Botnet!

Botnet is a social network simulator where you’re the only human along with a million bots who are obsessed with you.

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Creepy. Or, perhaps, just like being a Kardashian.
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Chinese hacking is alarming. So are data brokers • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

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Mr. Begor, Equifax’s chief executive, noted that “cybercrime is one of the greatest threats facing our nation today.” But what he ignored was his own company’s role in creating a glaring vulnerability in the system. If we’re to think of cybercrime like an analog counterpart, then Equifax is a bank on Main Street that forgot to lock its vault.

Why rob a bank? Because that’s where the money is. Why hack a data broker? Because that’s where the information is.

The analogy isn’t quite apt, though, because Equifax, like other data brokers, doesn’t fill its vaults with deposits from willing customers. Equifax amasses personal data on millions of Americans whether we want it to or not, creating valuable profiles that can be used to approve or deny loans or insurance claims. That data, which can help dictate the outcome of major events in our lives (where we live, our finances, even potentially our health), then becomes a target.

From this vantage, it’s unclear why data brokers should continue to collect such sensitive information at scale. Setting aside Equifax’s long, sordid history of privacy concerns and its refusal to let Americans opt out of collection, the very existence of such information, stored by private companies with little oversight, is a systemic risk..

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It was difficult to pick a section to extract: this is a terrific article. But who’s going to rein in the data brokers?
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The high-tech secret behind the stunning cinematography of ‘Uncut Gems’ • Input Mag

Charles Bramesco:

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Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a film of relentless, unceasing motion. Harried jeweler–slash–gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) hustles through midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District, up and down Sixth Avenue, back and forth from his home on Long Island to his philandering-pad in the city.

Even the closeups have a jittery sort of kinetic energy to them; Howard is always rocking back and forth, pacing, at times seemingly vibrating in place. That the film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, won’t get any recognition at the Oscars this Sunday is yet another reason to cast doubt on the Academy’s judgment.

That sensation of constant propulsive force was a tonal must for the film, but the Safdie brothers’ particular filmmaking methods made that a unique challenge. The co-directors get some of their best material by fostering a sense of spontaneity, so they eschew marks — electrical-tape X’s on the floor tipping off actors on where to stand — and encourage free movement about the set. They also believe that actors work best when hulking machines aren’t all up in their faces, so they prefer to situate their cameras far from a scene’s action and shoot using super-long zoom lenses. “The margin of error in these extreme closeups is less than an inch,” says Chris Silano, Khondji’s A-camera assistant on Uncut Gems.

The combination of unpredictable choreography and a depth of field flattened by distance would’ve made focusing these scenes impossible. That is, if not for a focus-calibrating device called the Light Ranger 2, which has amassed a cult following among Hollywood’s camera crews. “The Light Ranger 2 is going to revolutionize this piece of the industry,” Silano says. “It’s already started.” Everyone interviewed for this article echoed some version of this same sentiment, and the word revolutionize was used by all but one person.

That would be Howard Preston, the inventor of the Light Ranger and a friendly guy who’s modest about his estimable achievements.

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I’ll admit I didn’t notice the camerawork – the film is so stomach-churning. Though as one of the interviewees says, people only notice when it doesn’t work. And it worked.
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Stood up: Facebook keeps Europe waiting over dating feature • WSJ

Parmy Olson:

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Facebook is postponing the European rollout of its dating service which it planned to debut this week ahead of Valentine’s Day, according to Ireland’s top privacy regulator.

The move came after the Irish Data Protection Commission raised issues with the feature’s compliance with European Union data protection rules, the agency said. The company had been planning to launch the service on Thursday. The Irish regulator acts as the lead privacy cop for Facebook and Google parent Alphabet because they have both based their European operations in Dublin.

The agency said Facebook had notified it last week of its plans to roll out the service, which launched in the U.S. in September. Facebook says on its website that the dating service is available in 20 countries and “will be in Europe by early 2020.”

The commission’s concerns are focused on whether or not Facebook conducted the correct data-protection assessment ahead of the launch of the feature, the agency said. Several inspectors from the agency visited Facebook offices in Dublin earlier this week. The visit represented the first time that the regulator had carried out such an inspection on a large technology firm, under the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. The set of rules governs how companies can use and share data.

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Amazingly sloppy on Facebook’s part. If Valentine’s Day really is just right for its dating app (don’t you need a slightly longer run-up than one day?), it overlooked Europe’s bitey privacy regulations.

(The headline, though, is all over the place. It’s not as though Europe has been gagging for Facebook to do this, so it’s not really “stood up”. It’s Europe that’s making Facebook wait, sort of. “Europe breaks Facebook’s date”?)
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Online dating: the virtues and downsides • Pew Research Center

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The current survey finds that online dating is especially popular among certain groups – particularly younger adults and those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). Roughly half or more of 18- to 29-year-olds (48%) and LGB adults (55%) say they have ever used a dating site or app, while about 20% in each group say they have married or been in a committed relationship with someone they first met through these platforms. Americans who have used online dating offer a mixed look at their time on these platforms.

On a broad level, online dating users are more likely to describe their overall experience using these platforms in positive rather than negative terms. Additionally, majorities of online daters say it was at least somewhat easy for them to find others that they found physically attractive, shared common interests with, or who seemed like someone they would want to meet in person. But users also share some of the downsides to online dating. Roughly seven-in-ten online daters believe it is very common for those who use these platforms to lie to try to appear more desirable. And by a wide margin, Americans who have used a dating site or app in the past year say the experience left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%).

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Opinion: the ‘race to 5G’ is a myth • CNN

Kevin Werbach:

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Romania is one of 10 countries with significantly faster average fixed broadband connections than America today, yet no one in Washington seems concerned that will give Romanian firms a dominant advantage. The major tech platforms delivering innovative digital services to the world are still based in the United States and China. There are important concerns about the Chinese networking firm Huawei creating backdoors for surveillance or tilting the carrier equipment market toward Chinese-defined standards. Your 5G user experience, however, won’t depend on who makes the gear in the guts of the network.

The overheated rhetoric is based on the misconception that 5G heralds a new era of services for end-users. In reality, the claimed performance — hundreds of megabits or even gigabits per second — is misleading. Averages and ideal numbers mask huge variations depending on distance to an antenna, obstructions, weather and other factors. The fastest speeds require “millimeter wave” spectrum, which doesn’t penetrate walls or foliage well, and is generally less reliable than the lower frequencies used today. Millimeter wave requires a much denser network of antennas, which could be cost-prohibitive outside dense urban areas. Even if that hurdle is overcome, a gigabit per second to millions of phones requires a network able to move traffic at that speed end-to-end, which doesn’t exist today.

And just what are the applications that need more capacity than 4G offers? We already get crystal-clear video chats, a torrent of TikToks, Pokemon Go augmented reality, and massive Fortnite battles. Yes, every advance in network performance opened up new uses that seemed insignificant before, but the new capabilities of 5G are best suited to non-consumer applications.

If and when fleets of self-driving vehicles communicate constantly with each other or remote robotic surgery is a standard feature in local hospitals, 5G will be a must. But these next-generation “internet of things” scenarios are years in the future, as are the kinds of virtual and augmented reality worlds that appear in science fiction.

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Solid argument. I like how CNN feels obliged to say that it’s an opinion – as if there might be a factual news story that had discovered that the “race to 5G” was a myth all along, like the Loch Ness monster.
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Why poor people make poor decisions • The Correspondent

Rutger Bregman:

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the most significant improvement was in how the money helped parents, well, to parent. Before the casino [on a native American reservation in North Carolina] opened its doors [in 1997], parents worked hard through the summer but were often jobless and stressed in the winter. The new income enabled Cherokee families to put money aside and to pay bills in advance. Parents who were lifted out of poverty now reported having more time for their children.

They weren’t working any less though, Costello discovered. Mothers and fathers alike were putting in just as many hours as before the casino opened. More than anything, said tribe member Vickie L Bradley, the money helped ease the pressure on families, so the energy they’d spent worrying about money was now freed up for their children. And as Bradley put it, that “helps parents be better parents”.

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? Costello’s conclusion was both: the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk. But there’s a more important takeaway from this study.

Genes can’t be undone. Poverty can.

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Seems like a good argument for Universal Basic Income.
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Andy Rubin’s Essential Products is shutting down • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

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Essential Products https://www.essential.com/blog/essential-update today that it’s ceasing operations and shutting down. Founded by the controversial Andy Rubin, the startup last August showed off a radical ‘GEM’ smartphone.

Today’s shutdown is framed as due to Essential having “no clear path to deliver” its next smartphone to customers.

Despite our best efforts, we’ve now taken Gem as far as we can and regrettably have no clear path to deliver it to customers. Given this, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations and shutdown Essential.

Essential was founded in 2015 following long-time Android head Andy Rubin’s departure from Google, which emerged in 2018 was due to alleged sexual misconduct. The Essential Phone was first detailed in mid-2017, along with a smart hub called the Essential Home. The latter product never materialized, while the PH-1 launched in August of that year.

While the smartphone did not sell well, it was one of the first devices to feature a minimal notch for the front-facing camera. It was also applauded for getting fast Android updates, though that is ending today.

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Love how the notice that it’s shutting down is an “An update” rather than, say, “sayonara and thanks for all the fish”. Essential’s fate was sealed from that very first, overconfident, phone launched into a market that had already hit the wall.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1242: how the CIA spied on everyone, FTC to query past tech buyups, now wash your hands!, Razr reviewed, and more


Coronavirus concerns means Mobile World Congress in Barcelona might be this empty – or not happen at all. CC-licensed photo by Red.es on Flickr.

You can 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. Unsanitised. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How the CIA used Crypto AG encryption devices to spy on countries for decades • Washington Post

Greg Miller:

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For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret.

The company, Crypto AG, got its first break with a contract to build code-making machines for U.S. troops during World War II. Flush with cash, it became a dominant maker of encryption devices for decades, navigating waves of technology from mechanical gears to electronic circuits and, finally, silicon chips and software.

The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican.

But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.

The decades-long arrangement, among the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War, is laid bare in a classified, comprehensive CIA history of the operation obtained by The Washington Post and ZDF, a German public broadcaster, in a joint reporting project.

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Stunning piece of reporting. The CIA only sold off its interests finally in 2018. That gave it nearly 50 years of listening. In its way, quite a strong negative for Huawei: after all, if the CIA could do this (as well as plant bugs in Cisco routers sent to China), what might China do to be able to listen to anyone’s phone calls or data transmission?
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I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London • WIRED UK

James Temperton with an in-depth, deeply researched piece:

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On Airbnb, it turns out, scams aren’t just the preserve of lone chancers. As the short-term rental goldrush gathers pace, Airbnb empires are being rapidly scaled and monetised, with professional operators creating scores of fake accounts, fake listings and fake reviews to run rings around Airbnb, local law enforcement and the guests who place their trust in the platform. Reviews from guests paint a grim picture of people who have been tricked into staying in accommodation with blocked drains, broken fixtures and fittings, filthy floors, dirty bed linen – or, in some cases, accommodation that they simply did not book.

To squeeze every penny out of these inner-city goldmines, scammers have started outsourcing property management to ill-equipped call centres in the Philippines. The scammers call it “systemising”, a process of grabbing as many apartments as possible, filling them with identikit furniture, taking professional-looking photographs and then using every trick in the book to turn them into lucrative investments. Some of these tricks, though morally dubious, are perfectly legal. But others breach both Airbnb’s policies and local planning laws, while also putting the safety of guests at risk. As Vice found in October 2019, Airbnb is littered with fake and downright dodgy listings. But in London, where Airbnb enforces an annual 90-day limit on all “entire homes” listed on its platform, scammers have made a mockery of lax enforcement both by regulators and Airbnb itself, by turning entire new-build apartment blocks into de facto hotels designed for the short-term rental market. And the problem is far worse than anyone realises.

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It’s basically a new form of the housing benefit scam, except it’s done with wealthier people. And this one – weirdly – also pulls in the Catholic church. Oh, and the artist married to the actor David Schwimmer. It’s quite the ride. And yes, Trading Standards, you should do something about it.
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Coronavirus: Facebook and Intel ditch MWC phone show • BBC News

Zoe Kleinman:

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Facebook and Intel have become the latest big tech firms to announce they are withdrawing from MWC in Barcelona, citing concerns about coronavirus.
Spanish media is reporting that trade body the GSMA, which organises MWC, will meet to decide whether to cancel the event entirely on Friday.

The GSMA declined to comment on “internal meetings”.

Amazon, Sony, LG Electronics, Ericsson and US chip company Nvidia have already pulled out.

Other big brands have told the BBC they are reviewing their plans. Facebook said “evolving public health risks” were behind its decision.

So far the GSMA has said MWC will still go ahead.

However, one contact in the telecoms sector told the BBC that today was likely to be “a decisive day” for other firms contemplating dropping out.

More than 100,000 people usually attend Mobile World Congress every year, and thousands of firms exhibit. Around 6,000 people travel from China, according to GSMA figures.

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Huawei “still evaluating”. TSMC, a big chipmaker and important for 5G, is out. As Francisco Jeronimo of IDC points out, the balancing act is: lose millions in revenue (GSMA, all of Barcelona); or win the horrorshow of having a confirmed case there and have to quarantine thousands of people. The narrow path through – hold the show, have no cases – looks increasingly fraught. Expectations seem to be that the GSMA will bite the bullet and cancel.
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FTC will examine prior acquisitions by Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

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The FTC will require the companies to provide information on acquisitions not previously reported to the antitrust agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, according to a press release. Companies are required to submit merger and acquisition proposals that exceed a certain size for review by the FTC and Department of Justice, usually when a deal is valued at more than $90m, according to the FTC website. That means the special orders will be directed at smaller acquisitions and acqui-hires that might have been made quietly, rather than blockbuster deals like Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp that were formally reviewed by the antitrust agencies.

The FTC will likely examine discreet deals like those by Apple. CEO Tim Cook has previously told CNBC it acquires a company every two to three weeks on average, but it doesn’t announce the deals because the company is “primarily looking for talent and intellectual property.” Apple’s Big Tech peers regularly make small acquisitions as well.

“The orders will help the FTC deepen its understanding of large technology firms’ acquisition activity, including how these firms report their transactions to the federal antitrust agencies, and whether large tech companies are making potentially anticompetitive acquisitions of nascent or potential competitors that fall below HSR filing thresholds and therefore do not need to be reported to the antitrust agencies,” according to the release. “The orders will also contribute broadly to the FTC’s understanding of technology markets, and thereby support the FTC’s program of vigorous and effective enforcement to promote competition and protect consumers in digital markets.”

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Already investigating Facebook; now adding a little more kindling to that fire, it seems.
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A teacher did an experiment to show the power of handwashing, and you can’t stay unimpressed • Brightside

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At the beginning of winter, when flu season had just started, Jaralee Metcalf, a behavioral specialist from Idaho Falls Elementary School, shared that she was tired of always being sick. Although the spread of bacteria in her class was inevitable, she wanted to show the kids why they needed to wash their hands to kill germs.

To explain how bacteria spread and why it’s important to wash your hands well and often, Jaralee came up with a simple classroom activity with her students: she asked several kids with various levels of hand cleanliness to touch 5 pieces of white bread that were taken from the same loaf, at the same time. Then, they put the bread in individual plastic bags to observe what would happen over the course of one month.

The first piece was rubbed on all of the classroom laptops. The second one was a control piece — it wasn’t touched, it was placed immediately in the plastic bag and labeled “Fresh & untouched.” The third piece of bread was touched by the whole class using unwashed hands. For piece #4 the whole class washed their hands with warm water & soap and, again, touched the slice. And for bread piece #5, they cleaned their hands with hand sanitizer and then touched it.


© Jaralee Annice Metcalf / facebook

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Not so keen on hand sanitisers now, are you? (Side note: I’ve never come across Brightside before; it seems to be a site eager to emulate the content farm in the TV series Succession which deploys headlines like “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk on the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-Changer” and “Wait, Is Every Taylor Swift Lyric Secretly Marxist?” Because I’d like to point out that I can stay unimpressed if I damn well want to.)
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Clearview AI’s Hoan Ton-That says he’s stockpiling billions of our photos • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan tested Clearview, and it recognised him, but he was in a challenge-the-guy mood:

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I wasn’t a random person Ton-That had pulled from a crowd. He knew he was coming to CNN to meet me and he knew I’d ask him to run my face through his system. He even admitted he had searched my images before we met. (And, it’s worth noting, though the photo [of Sullivan aged 15 from an Irish newspaper] is old and I’m almost unrecognizable, the page it’s on does include a caption with my name.)

So we surprised him and also asked him to run a search for my producer.

That at least appeared to make Ton-That a little nervous. “Can we cut this if it doesn’t work?” he quipped. We said no.

But it did work. As we scrolled through the images it had found, my producer noticed that Clearview had found pictures from her Instagram account, even though her account has been private, accessible only to her followers. Ton-That explained that Clearview had probably downloaded the photos from her account before she had made it private last year.

Ton-That’s representative had my producer’s name in advance of the interview but Ton-That said he had not run her face before the live demonstration. Both Clearview tests for my producer and I returned no false positives.

The parts of Ton-That’s demonstration that spooked my producer and me — his access to photos that are no longer publicly available online and his ability to find a photo of me as a minor — are likely among the things his law enforcement clients find appealing.

He said more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the US and Canada are using the tool, a number CNN Business has not independently verified, and when asked, he wouldn’t specify how many are paying customers versus those using free trials. He also said that a number of banks are using Clearview software for fraud investigations, but declined to name any of the banks. CNN Business reached out to America’s 20 largest bank chains. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Ally Bank and SunTrust all denied using the software. The others either declined to comment or didn’t respond to CNN Business’ request for comment.

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I’d bet that lots of companies are trying out Clearview with eagerness – to spot troublesome customers or ex-employees – and that pretty much none of them are going to admit it. They’ll let Clearview take the flak.
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Popular YouTube Kids’ channel Cocomelon gets into merch and toys • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Lucas Shaw:

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Jay Jeon is an unassuming mogul. No one takes notice of him as he slips into the corner booth at the Italian steakhouse steps from his Orange County office on a sunny Friday. Most any toddler who knew what the trim, soft-spoken 55-year-old does, however, would have gone nuts. Jeon runs Cocomelon, a YouTube channel dedicated to nursery rhymes and original songs, whose animated kids and creatures generate about 2.5 billion views in a typical month. That translates into as much as $11.3m in monthly ad revenue, according to estimates from industry analyst Social Blade. In terms of viewership, an average Cocomelon video dwarfs the turnout for most of the world’s sports leagues, pop stars, and scripted TV. It’s the second-most-watched YouTube channel, trailing only T-Series, India’s music king.

Cocomelon’s success has caught everyone off guard, including Jeon. For more than a decade, he and his wife ran their channel more or less by themselves, and he was happy that way. The steakhouse meeting is his first press interview ever, and one condition was that he not be photographed, for fear of paparazzi.

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They upload one new video a week; most of the rest of the views are on older content. If you wondered what happened to childrens’ TV, it’s this: it turned into YouTube channels that kids watch on their tablets.
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Marketplaces and scalability: lessons from Uber and Airbnb • Medium

Sameer Singh:

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Uber and Lyft are valued at roughly 2–3 times total equity funding raised (incl. funds raised in their IPO). Airbnb is far more capital efficient, with a valuation-to-funding multiple of 9–10x. In other words, Airbnb created 3–5 times more value than Uber or Lyft for every dollar of funding raised. This is critical for investors to understand as it directly affects returns.

Despite the common “sharing economy” tag applied to them, Uber and Airbnb are built on very different models. Both run marketplaces that connect underutilized assets (and later, professionals) to consumers, with a self-reinforcing network effect, i.e. the addition of a supplier makes the product more valuable for all customers, and vice versa. They were both founded in Silicon Valley and were venture capital funded. However, that is where the similarities end.

Uber’s model relies on hyperlocal network effects, i.e. the addition of a unit of supply (a driver) makes the product more valuable for the demand side (riders) within a small geographic radius. So when Uber acquired a driver in a city, it only helped it grow organically within that city (usually, within a small part of that city). And when Uber expanded to other cities, they had to re-invest in driver acquisition without the benefit of any latent demand. They had no drivers and so did not have riders to attract them organically (commonly called the “cold start” problem). This was complicated further by the fact that Uber’s success catalysed competitors in other markets who then created their own local driver networks before Uber could enter them (e.g. Didi in China, Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East, Grab in South East Asia, etc.). Since local competitors had an established hyperlocal network effect, it became even more expensive for Uber to enter and operate in these markets. As a result, Uber was forced to eventually sell many of its regional units to local competitors and acquire others…

…Airbnb’s model, on the other hand, is built on cross-border network effects, i.e. the addition of a unit of supply (a host) makes the product more valuable for the demand side (guests) across geographic boundaries.

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Singh, you’ll recall, has joined 6CVentures, a VC firm built by founders. This is a great analysis. Although of course AirBnB – and Uber – have other wrinkles, as seen above.
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Motorola Razr review: a tragedy unfolds • Input Magazine

Joshua Topolsky:

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Let me put this very bluntly. The screen on the Razr is gross. It ripples, it creaks, it moves when you touch it, it very visibly shows creases and bumps when the display is off. Its physicality is pronounced in a way that is simply very different than any other smartphone display on the market. It doesn’t feel nice, it feels worrying. But to be clear, it’s also fine. It works exactly as any other phone does. It’s responsive to touch. Images and videos look crisp and clear, text is easy to read. It is a phone screen. But you’re going to be surprised about the way it feels and scared about its longevity. Because of the nature of the folding display and the lack of maturity these kinds of devices naturally exhibit, this kind of wonkiness is probably going to be with us for quite some time. But I want to be clear: it’s fine. It’s fine!

One thing that did bug me endlessly, however: the display never unfolds to completely flat (or straight). The upper part of the phone always sits at a very slight angle, so that if it’s on a flat surface you can wobble it a bit. I desperately wanted the screen to go flat, but unless you bend the phone backwards in a worrying way, it can’t be done. Why? We may never know.

Otherwise, I actually found the display to be somewhat too small and too skinny. The keyboard feels microscopic on the screen, even when adjusting screen resolution and keyboard height (of course, maybe my monstrously large hands are the problem). Websites feel claustrophobic in the browser. Apps seem like their sides have squeezed into submission. When you add in that giant chin, the whole configuration sort of forces your hands to hover over and down into the screen, like someone slid a wrist rest under your hands while using it. You get used to it, but it’s weird and uncomfortable at first.

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Anyway, yours for $1,500. (Side note: it seems The Outline is still going. So is Input a spinoff? Has Topolsky moved on? I feel that I missed a memo somewhere.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1241: Oscar winner keys Apple, QAnon infects reality, Wuhan coronavirus takes toll on smartphones and MWC, Hong Kong v Swiss watches, and more


Start streaming, and start being tracked with data sent in cleartext to advertisers, a new paper finds. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

You can 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. For some value of “links”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Watching you watch: the tracking system of over-the-top TV streaming devices • the morning paper

Adrian Colyer:

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The results from this paper are all too predictable: channels on Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming devices are insecure and riddled with privacy leaks. The authors quantify the scale of the problem, and note that users have even less viable defence mechanisms than they do on web and mobile platforms. When you watch TV, the TV is watching you.

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In this paper, we examine the advertising and tracking ecosystems of Over-The-Top (“OTT”) streaming devices, which deliver Internet-based video content to traditional TVs/display devices. OTT devices refer to a family of services and devices that either directly connect to a TV (e.g., streaming sticks and boxes) or enable functionality within a TV (e.g. smart TVs) to facilitate the delivery of Internet-based video content.

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The study focuses on Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which together account for between 59% and 65% of the global market…

…Trackers are everywhere! On Roku TV, the most prevalent tracker is for Google’s doubleclick.net (975/1000 channels). On Amazon Fire TV it is amazon-adsystem.com (687/1000). Facebook is notably less present on TV than it is in mobile and web channels…

…Nine of the top 100 channels on Roku, and 14 of the top 100 channels on Amazon Fire TV leak the title of each video watched to a tracking domain. The Roku channels leaked this information over unencrypted connections.

79% of Roku channels send at least one request in cleartext, and 76% of Fire TV channels.

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Amazing how pretty much every platform has to rediscover security as a followup, but is fantastically good at implementing whatever the advertising world works. A little reminder that you, the customer, mean far less than them, the advertisers.
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Taika Waititi slams Apple’s MacBook keyboards after winning first Oscar • The Verge

Sam Byford:

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Speaking with journalists after winning his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi had other things on his mind. When asked what he thought writers should be demanding in the next round of discussions with producers, Waititi put Apple’s controversial laptop keyboards on blast.

“Apple needs to fix those keyboards,” he said. “They are impossible to write on — they’ve gotten worse. It makes me want to go back to PCs. Because PC keyboards, the bounce-back for your fingers is way better. Hands up who still uses a PC? You know what I’m talking about. It’s a way better keyboard. Those Apple keyboards are horrendous.”

“I’ve got some shoulder problems,” Waititi continued. “I’ve got OOS [Occupational Overuse Syndrome, a term used in New Zealand for RSI] — I don’t know what you call it over here, this sort of thing here (gestures to arm), that tendon which goes down your forearm down into the thumb? You know what I’m talking about, if you guys are ever writing. And what happens is you open the laptop and you’re like this (makes uncomfortable hunched-over-laptop pose) — we’ve just got to fix those keyboards. The WGA [Writers’ Guild of America, for screenplay writers] needs to step in and actually do something.”

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As in his fantastic film*, Waititi is using humour to make a serious point. Apple really needs to put scissor switches into the MacBook Air pronto.

* not the Thor one, which is passable, but its screenplay can’t hold a candle to Jojo Rabbit.
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Tech’s strangest job listings: Future Edition • protocol

Lauren Hepler:

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Ninjas, evangelists, alchemists: Silicon Valley has a long history of unsubtly repackaging jobs that might otherwise be titled technical support, marketing or office management.

But beyond the distinctive euphemisms, the thousands of jobs posted each week by tech behemoths, well-heeled startups and those trying to bridge the valley of death in between often hint at more dramatic economic shifts underway. And, hey, even if those world-changing ideas don’t materialize, the listings provide a useful record of what once, for some reason, seemed like a good idea.

We’ve rounded up a half dozen of the most intriguing current job openings in tech. Some sound perfectly normal at first, while the jobs they describe are anything but. Others sound bonkers but may be extremely normal. Who can tell? Enjoy.

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By far the most inflated is “Overnight Happiness Ambassador”, which as Hepler points out, probably just means “person who delivers snacks in the wee hours.”
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What happens when QAnon seeps from the web to the offline world • The New York Times

Mike McIntire and Kevin Roose:

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What began online more than two years ago as an intricate, if baseless, conspiracy theory that quickly attracted thousands of followers has since found footholds in the offline world. QAnon has surfaced in political campaigns, criminal cases, merchandising and at least one college class. Last month, hundreds of QAnon enthusiasts gathered in a Tampa, Fla., park to listen to speakers and pick up literature, and in England, a supporter of President Trump and the Brexit leader Nigel Farage raised a “Q” flag over a Cornish castle.
Most recently, the botched Iowa Democratic caucuses and the coronavirus outbreak have provided fodder for conspiracy mongering: QAnon fans shared groundless theories online linking the liberal billionaire George Soros to technological problems that hobbled the caucuses, and passed around bogus and potentially dangerous “treatments” for the virus.

About a dozen candidates for public office in the United States have promoted or dabbled in QAnon, and its adherents have been arrested in at least seven episodes, including a murder in New York and an armed standoff with the police near the Hoover Dam. The F.B.I. cited QAnon in an intelligence bulletin last May about the potential for violence motivated by “fringe political conspiracy theories.”

Matthew Lusk, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for a Florida congressional seat and openly embraces QAnon, said in an email that its anonymous creator was a patriot who “brings what the fake news will not touch without slanting.” As for the theory’s more extreme elements, Mr. Lusk said he was uncertain whether there really was a pedophile ring associated with the deep state.

“That being said,” he added, “I do believe there is a group in Brussels, Belgium, that do eat aborted babies.”

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In the race between education and catastrophe, you have to say that education is labouring under something of a disadvantage, which is that it requires rational thinking.
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Building rules in public: our approach to synthetic and manipulated media • Twitter

Yoel Roth and Ashita Achuthan:

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If we believe that media shared in a Tweet have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated, we will provide additional context on the Tweet. This means we may:

• Apply a label to the Tweet;
• Show a warning to people before they Retweet or like the Tweet;
• Reduce the visibility of the Tweet on Twitter and/or prevent it from being recommended; and/or
• Provide additional explanations or clarifications, as available, such as a landing page with more context.

In most cases, we will take all of the above actions on Tweets we label.

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So that’s Twitter laying out its stall on how it will deal with faked video (starting from March 5). At first it sounds good, but on closer inspection it’s exactly the same as Facebook’s approach, as laid out by Monica Bickert in this (faintly maddening) encounter with CNN’s Anderson Cooper from May 2019, over the manipulated Pelosi video: label it, tell people it’s junk (but don’t prevent them passing it on), don’t remove it.

And since we’re talking about manipulation via social media…
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How social media platforms enable politicians to undermine democracy • Vox

Zack Beauchamp:

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At the inauguration of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, in early January, a crowd of his supporters began a surprising chant. They weren’t cheering for Bolsonaro or his running mate or their party; instead, they were reciting the names of social media platforms.

“Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!” the crowd yelled. “WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp!”

They were crediting the platforms with their man’s victory, and they aren’t entirely wrong. During the campaign, a conservative pro-business interest group funded a massive disinformation campaign on WhatsApp (the popular messaging app owned by Facebook). False and damaging information about Bolsonaro’s left-wing opponent, including fake news mocked up to look like neutral fact-checks, spread like wildfire in the runup to the October 8 vote. This deluge, according to one Brazilian expert, played a role in Bolsonaro’s victory.

The glee Bolsonaro’s supporters exhibited points to a troubling development, one familiar to many Americans: Social media, once seen as a profoundly democratic technology, is increasingly serving the needs of authoritarians and their allies.

Many observers have noted that entrenched authoritarian states, like Russia and China, have gotten very good at manipulating these platforms to marginalize domestic dissidents and destabilize democracies abroad. What’s gotten less attention is how authoritarian factions inside democratic states — far-right politicians and parties that are at best indifferent to democratic norms — benefit from the nature of modern social media platforms.

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Hypothesis: western social media networks as presently configured are more congruent with authoritarian regimes than laissez-faire ones, despite being set up under the latter.
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In light of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak’s impact on smartphone supply chain, 1Q20 global production forecast revised to 12% decrease YoY • TrendForce

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Samsung has suffered the least damage from the outbreak, but because it sources some of its components from China, Samsung’s 1Q20 production forecast has been reduced by 3% compared to our previous forecast, registering 71.5m units. Huawei, which ranks second in terms of quarterly production volume, was placed on the U.S. Entity List and subsequently prevented from installing GMS [Google Mobile services] on their newer models, lowering their overseas sales. Turning to a business model that heavily focuses on the Chinese market, Huawei sustained major losses under stagnant Chinese New Year sales numbers. Owing to losses in both domestic and overseas markets, Huawei is projected to produce 42.5m units in 1Q20, a 15% decrease from our previous forecast.

Third-place Apple made arrangements for its employees to work from home in an effort to reduce risks of infection, but this has the side effect of slowing down the development of new iPhones in 2H20, with component certification coming to a near halt. In the short term, Apple faces uncertainties in its labor force’s work resumption, and the supply of certain key components involved in the production of new iPhones cannot be properly delivered. These setbacks will directly affect the upcoming release of iPhone SE2 (also known as iPhone 9) and lower our forecast of 1Q20 iPhone production by about 10%, from 45.5m to 41m units.

Fourth-ranked Xiaomi primarily relies on online sales, with a relatively low market share in China at about 9%. Compared to OPPO and Vivo, which have a domestically focused sales model, Xiaomi is not as affected by the outbreak; thus, TrendForce is revising its 1Q20 production forecast to 10% lower than our previous projection, with 2.47m units produced in the quarter, essentially unchanged from 1Q19. Also, TrendForce is lowering Oppo and Vivo’s production forecasts by 14% and 15%, with 2.4m and 1.7m units produced, respectively. Oppo and Vivo rank fifth and sixth place globally in 1Q20.

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This is likely to continue to March; I’d expect disruption to continue until April at least.
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Companies not attending MWC2020 • The Mobile Network

Keith Dyer keeping the list here up to date. Growing fast, following a GSM Association statement on 9 February that “All travellers who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they have been outside of China 14 days prior to the event.” In other words, they had to have left by Monday 10th, as the event starts on the 24th.

The not-coming list now includes Sony, China’s Umidigi (maker of cheap.. er, affordable smartphones), NTT Docomo, Amazon, Nvidia, Ericsson (the second largest exhibitor), and LG. Going to be quite the tricky game for Huawei and Nokia to see who blinks first, if at all.
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Data Voids • Data & Society

Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd:

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Data voids are often difficult to detect. Most can be harmless until something happens that causes lots of people to search for the same term, such as a breaking news event, or a reporter using an unfamiliar phrase. In some cases, manipulators work quickly to produce conspiratorial content to fill a void, whereas other data voids, such as those from outdated terms, are filled slowly over time. Data voids are compounded by the fraught pathways of search-adjacent recommendation systems such as auto-play, auto-fill, and trending topics; each of which are vulnerable to manipulation.

The report identifies five types of data voids in play:

• Breaking News: The production of problematic content can be optimized to terms that are suddenly spiking due to a breaking news situation; these voids will eventually be filled by legitimate news content, but are abused before such content exists
• Strategic New Terms: Manipulators create new terms and build a strategically optimized information ecosystem around them before amplifying those terms into the mainstream, often through news media, in order to introduce newcomers to problematic content and frames
• Outdated Terms: When terms go out of date, content creators stop producing content associated with these terms long before searchers stop seeking out content. This creates an opening for manipulators to produce content that exploits search engines’ dependence on freshness
• Fragmented Concepts: By breaking connections between related ideas, and creating distinct clusters of information that refer to different political frames, manipulators can segment searchers into different information worlds
• Problematic Queries: Search results for disturbing or fraught terms that have historically returned problematic results continue to do so, unless high quality content is introduced to contextualize or outrank such problematic content.

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The report is from November 2019, but has lost none of its relevance. (Also: best use of “fraught” you’ll see today.)
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November 2019: Hong Kong crisis batters Swiss watch exports • Hodinkee

Joe Thompson:

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Swiss watch exports to Hong Kong dropped 30% in value in October versus the previous year, underscoring the severe impact of the worsening political situation there on the local economy.

Six months of protests by pro-democracy demonstrators against the Beijing-backed local government have pushed Hong Kong into a recession. Increasingly violent clashes between protestors and the police have forced the closure of luxury retail shops in the world-renowned shopping Mecca. 

For the Swiss watch industry, the unexpected downturn in its top export market has become a major concern. Exports to Hong Kong have fallen for seven consecutive months. October’s drop was the worst yet: for the month, Hong Kong fell to third place in the Swiss watch export ranking, behind the U.S. and China. 

Hong Kong’s 30% decline “had a significant impact on global growth, reducing it by five points,” said the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), which issues export data each month. “The rest of the world generally saw an upturn, 6.5%,” the FH said. However, including Hong Kong, total global exports for October rose just 1.5%.

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Thus answering my suspicions that the high-end Swiss watch industry hasn’t been touched by Apple. (And, to reiterate: the low end such as Swatch may well be.) The Wuhan coronavirus is surely going to hit that much harder again. (Thanks Barry Collins for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1240: Trump admin grabs location data, the disinformation war, Apple v Swiss watches, how antivaxx can kill, and more


A manufacturing plant fire marks a serious threat to the supply of this stuff. CC-licensed photo by Ninα on Flickr.

You can 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. Isn’t that something? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Federal agencies use cellphone location data for immigration enforcement • WSJ

Byron Tau and Michelle Hackman:

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The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The location data is drawn from ordinary cellphone apps, including those for games, weather and e-commerce, for which the user has granted permission to log the phone’s location.

The Department of Homeland Security has used the information to detect undocumented immigrants and others who may be entering the U.S. unlawfully, according to these people and documents.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, has used the data to help identify immigrants who were later arrested, these people said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another agency under DHS, uses the information to look for cellphone activity in unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert that straddle the Mexican border, the people said.

The federal government’s use of such data for law enforcement purposes hasn’t previously been reported.

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Now, many will be quick to say this is perfectly fine. After all, if people are undocumented, they’re in the country illegally, surely? But what happens when the government pushes the rules again and starts tracking people who are legally in the country, but whose status the government wants to change? Mostly importantly, who says no about tracking this data? The slip from enforcement to dictatorship isn’t a long one, and we know how data about people can be used for the worst purposes. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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The 2020 [US] election will be a war of disinformation • The Atlantic

McKay Coppins:

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The president’s reelection campaign was [last autumn/fall] in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.

The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?

As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

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Those checks and balances in the US Constitution are increasingly clearly the emptiest of promises. The GOP has crossed that line too: it has fallen so in love with being in power that it has abandoned any principles that might get in the way of that. It’s the only tiniest of steps from there to Chinese-style authoritarianism.
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How Apple killed the Swiss watch industry • Forbes

Enrique Dans:

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Later that year, I discussed technology substitution in the watch sector. In May 2017, I pointed out that three years of growing sales of smartwatches and a consecutive drop in exports by the Swiss watch industry represented an unprecedented crisis, one that heralded its demise, consigning it to the past and that while it would retain its followers, they would be a residual market. As I said at the time, when disruption hits, hoping that the inertia of tradition, style and other intangibles will save the bottom line won’t cut it.

Apple’s reinvention of the wristwatch is not only evident in its impressive sales figures: it can be seen by analyzing its usage dynamics. When somebody acquires an Apple Watch, they typically tell themselves they will wear it sometimes, but remain faithful to their favorite traditional watch. After all, the Swiss industry has been trying for years to get us to see watches as a fashion accessory or collectable. For many watch enthusiasts, a Swiss watch was a powerful status symbol.

But once you have tasted the apple, you’re lost. Experience shows that the Apple Watch is more than something that tells the time, and is instead receives notifications, evaluates your physical activity, shows the weather forecast, tells you if your team has won, and a myriad other things, including whether you are suffering from an arrhythmia. As soon as you start using the Apple Watch, you realize one thing is clear: the rest of your watch collection will live on in a drawer from now on. And every time you’re tempted to take them out and use them instead of the Apple device, you spend the whole day looking at your wrist for information that isn’t there.

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I’ll take the contrary position: I think that Apple largely isn’t responsible for the fall in Swiss watch sales, at least at the high end. It may well be at the low end, since an Apple Watch does a hell of a lot more than a Swatch does, and lots of Americans have iPhones. But I’ve been hearing that high-end sales (or prices; effectively the same thing, for the watchmakers) are down. Is the sort of person who would drop $80,000 on a Rolex really going to opt for a $500 Watch? I just don’t think so. What I don’t know is where that money that would go on Rolexes is going. Nor can I find – yet – any data about it. Pointers welcome.
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On Facebook, anti-vaxxers urged a mom not to give her son Tamiflu. He later died • NBC News

Brandy Zadrozny:

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Facebook hosts a vast network of groups that trade in false health information. On “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” one of the largest known health misinformation groups with more than 178,000 members, people have solicited advice for how to deal with the flu. Members of the group have previously spread conspiracies that outbreaks of preventable diseases are “hoaxes” perpetrated by the government, and use the groups to mass-contact parents whose children have died and suggest without evidence that vaccines may be to blame.

One recent post came from the mother of a 4-year-old Colorado boy who died from the flu this week. In it, she consulted group members while noting that she had declined to fill a prescription written by a doctor.

The child had not been diagnosed yet, but he was running a fever and had a seizure, the mother wrote. She added that two of her four children had been diagnosed with the flu and that the doctor had prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu for everyone in the household.

“The doc prescribed tamiflu I did not pick it up,” she wrote.

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So much for the wisdom of crowds. Or at least that crowd.
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The five-year plan for telecom equipment • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg (and, possibly, others):

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Late yesterday, the [Wall Street] Journal reported on comments made by US Attorney General Barr to the affect that the US government should construct a telecom equipment vendor that could compete with Chinese equipment major Huawei.

Put simply, this is a terrible idea.

The United States has built an incredible economy without ever involving government directly in this level of economic planning. Why should this country abandon the principles of free market capitalism that have driven its immense wealth?

We have worked in and around the telecom industry for a long time, and below we list the many reasons why this project will ultimately fail, and likely do a lot of harm in the process.

Our first impression of this proposal is that it is so ludicrous as to not merit a response. Better to ignore it because it is likely not a real effort. Last year, there were rumors of similar government intervention in the wireless industry. Those sank beneath the waves of political fever without a ripple, and it seems likely that this will as well. But this one stuck with us, and here we are. This is not intended as a partisan piece, both major US political parties have their share of political lunacy right now. We are clearly in election year Silly Season. But we do not know healthcare, taxation or energy, so we are going to write about this one, about which we do know a thing or two.

So why is this a bad idea?

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He offers multiple, interconnected reasons. All solid. It’s quite strange that the US government is even beginning to contemplate this.
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Motorola Razr ‘breaks’ after just 27,000 folds in CNet’s testing video (Update: adds Motorola’s statement) • Android Police

Ryne Hager:

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It looks like the Moto Razr wasn’t able to last anywhere near as long in CNet’s test as the old Galaxy Fold did. The phone “broke” after just 27,000 folds. After developing a clicking noise when folding, it developed a “hitch,” with the hinge appearing to fall out of alignment, and the automated folding machine was unable to close the device correctly. However, the screen on the device is still working. Failure, in this case, is a relative metric — it’s not like the phone exploded.

CNet’s video hosts admit they used the phone somewhat before recording to test that everything was working correctly with the automated machine, so that may have had an effect. Even so, Moto’s folding phone could have fared better, and these results don’t speak well for the phone’s potential durability.

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Motorola’s response was, roughly, “you’re test-folding it wrong.”
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Why Google might prefer dropping a $22bn business • Yahoo

Alex Webb:

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Whenever people rattle off big tech deals whose regulatory approval was, in hindsight, a mistake, they tend to include the Alphabet Inc. unit’s $3.2 billion acquisition of DoubleClick in 2008. I’ve done it three times in the past 12 months — here, here and here — lumping it alongside Facebook Inc.’s deals for WhatsApp and Instagram on the antitrust wall of shame.

So you can well imagine how, in one of those funky conference rooms at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, divesting DoubleClick might emerge as a solution for the company’s growing antitrust woes. “If DoubleClick is the problem,” the argument goes, “why don’t we just sell DoubleClick?”

Such informal conversations have taken place, according to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday. Except it’s not DoubleClick per se (Google rebranded the product in 2018) but part of its successor: what Google calls its third-party advertising business, which places ads on websites that Google doesn’t operate itself, such as a banner ad at the top of a news website.

Selling a slice of its advertising technology operation would be a significant concession (a Google spokeswoman told the Journal it had no plans to exit the business). But selling the third-party business would not unravel Google’s dominant position in online ads. It and Facebook are the gatekeepers for some two-thirds of all online ad spending. That outlay totaled $295 billion globally last year, according to the World Advertising Research Council. Google itself hoovered up 46% of the spending, some of which gets forwarded to third parties. For example, when an ad runs during or before a video on YouTube, Google hands about 55% of the fee to the publisher.

Google’s network members unit generated sales of $21.5bn last year, the majority of which was most likely for third-party websites. For context, that’s 40% more than the trailing 12-month sales of WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising agency. But as a proportion of the global total, it’s a drop in the ocean.

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The Human Screenome Project • Stanford University

:

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Mapping the human screenome can be a critical and cross-cutting part of solutions and theories about social challenges involving media – from fake news to smartphone addiction to social media and mental health.
 

This video shows a sample movie of one person’s smartphone use for 3 minutes.  Every 5 seconds that the phone screen is activated, a screenshot is recorded, compressed, encrypted and transmitted to secure servers at  the Human Screenome Project at Stanford University.  The movie shows a compilation of screens that represents 15 mins of use over approximately 2 hours of one day.  The movie demonstrates that digital content is diverse and fragmented, with different content threaded into sequences that break apart traditional message (e.g., videos, news stories, conversations) but make sense to individual users.

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The “screenome” being the digital representation of what you do on your phone. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
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“Devastating” manufacturing plant fire threatens worldwide vinyl record supply • Pitchfork

Noah Yoo:

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Apollo Masters—a manufacturing plant that supplies the lacquer used for making master discs, which are used to make vinyl records—suffered a fire on Thursday, February 6, at its manufacturing and storage facility in Banning, California, The Desert Sun reports. No employees were injured in the “devastating” blaze, which completely destroyed the facility. A note on Apollo Masters’ website reads, “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time.” Figures in the vinyl record production industry have expressed similar concern.

“From my understanding, this fire will present a problem for the vinyl industry worldwide,” Ben Blackwell, co-founder of Third Man Records told Pitchfork in an email. “There are only TWO companies that make lacquers in the world, and the other, MDC in Japan, already had trouble keeping up with demand BEFORE this development.” (The emphasis is Blackwell’s.)

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Well this certainly creates a problem for vinyl’s plans to overthrow streaming and get us all back buying 12in remixes of singles.
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Springs-loaded: test-driving Nike’s Vaporfly running shoe • The Guardian

Elle Hunt:

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“If you hear the sound barrier being broken over Burgess Park,” I said to my flatmate as I left the house, “that will be me.”

I was joking, sort of. Ahead of me, the 5km local parkrun. Beneath me, or at least on my feet, a new pair of Nike Vaporflys – the most talked-about trainers in the world. And not just any old Vaporflys. I was road testing the even newer Vaporfly Next%, scientifically proven – it is claimed – to make plodders into joggers, and joggers into runners.

So much spring has been put into so many steps by these shoes, it has been branded “technological doping” by some in the world of athletics.

Looking at the science before heading out, it seemed that these trainers were higher-tech than the Toyota Starlet in which I learned to drive – and quite possibly faster. Even the design, in a very precisely calibrated turquoise and tangerine, makes it look as though your feet are sliding outwards off your legs.

Sandwiched inside the thick, ultra-lightweight foam is a carbon-fibre plate that is supposed to propel you forward. Nike loftily terms it the “4% system”, which refers to the percentage improvement in running efficiency the shoe is supposed to give you.

Elite runners don’t need convincing. Of the 36 possible podium finishes in world marathon majors in 2017, 19 were wearing Vaporflys.

But none of those medallist marathoners are likely to have pounded the paths of Burgess parkrun in Southwark, south London. The Next% I was wearing was apparently the next step up, promising “a statistically significant improvement” on the original.

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Terrific idea for an article. Hunt is your average 28-minute 5K runner, so her questions were: would anything change, and if so would it be “statistically significant” at her level?
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An AI epidemiologist sent the first warnings of the Wuhan coronavirus • WIRED

Eric Niiler:

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“We know that governments may not be relied upon to provide information in a timely fashion,” says Kamran Khan, BlueDot’s founder and CEO. “We can pick up news of possible outbreaks, little murmurs or forums or blogs of indications of some kind of unusual events going on.”

Khan says the algorithm doesn’t use social media postings because that data is too messy. But he does have one trick up his sleeve: access to global airline ticketing data that can help predict where and when infected residents are headed next. It correctly predicted that the virus would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo in the days following its initial appearance.

Khan, who was working as a hospital infectious disease specialist in Toronto during the SARS epidemic of 2003, dreamt of finding a better way to track diseases. That virus started in provincial China and spread to Hong Kong and then to Toronto, where it killed 44 people. “There’s a bit of deja vu right now,” Khan says about the coronavirus outbreak today. “In 2003, I watched the virus overwhelm the city and cripple the hospital. There was an enormous amount of mental and physical fatigue, and I thought, ‘Let’s not do this again.’”

After testing out several predictive programs, Khan launched BlueDot in 2014 and raised $9.4m in venture capital funding. The company now has 40 employees—physicians and programmers who devise the disease surveillance analytic program, which uses natural-language processing and machine learning techniques to sift through news reports in 65 languages, along with airline data and reports of animal disease outbreaks. “What we have done is use natural language processing and machine learning to train this engine to recognize whether this is an outbreak of anthrax in Mongolia versus a reunion of the heavy metal band Anthrax,” Kahn says.

Once the automated data-sifting is complete, human analysis takes over, Khan says. Epidemiologists check that the conclusions make sense from a scientific standpoint, and then a report is sent to government, business, and public health clients.

BlueDot’s reports are then sent to public health officials in a dozen countries (including the US and Canada), airlines, and frontline hospitals where infected patients might end up. BlueDot doesn’t sell their data to the general public, but they are working on it, Khan says.

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I’d really like to know what their hit rate is. It sounds like you could make anything from that data.
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