Start Up No.1,006: Apple preps odd-sized laptops and iPads, MPs slam Facebook, Amazon aims low on carbon, AI music!, LG holds its fold, and more


Your pushup capacity could predict your risk of heart disease. CC-licensed photo by Orin Zebest 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. Popular Front of Judea? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

New science shows the power of the pushup • Quartz

Chase Purdy:

»

What they hoped to figure out was whether there exists an easy, in-person way that doctors could assess heart disease risk in their patients. It turns out, it might be as simple as asking people to do push-ups, according to a new study published Feb. 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As part of their research, the scientists followed 1,104 firefighters from 10 Indiana-based fire departments for a decade. When the fire fighters would see the their local doctors for routine check-ups, they were also checked for the number of pushups they could complete.

A physician would pull out a metronome and set it at 80 beats per minute. Then the firefighters would be counted for the number of pushups they could complete until they reached 80, missed three or more beats, or stopped entirely because of exhaustion.

Over the 10 years, the researchers reported noticing significantly fewer signs of heart disease-related issues among the firefighters who could complete a greater number of pushups. Among the people who could complete more than 40, there was a 96% reduction in the cardiovascular disease incidents compared to those who could complete fewer than 10.

“The push-up examination requires no special equipment, is low cost or no cost, can easily be performed in almost any setting within two minutes, and provides an objective estimate of functional status,” the researchers wrote in the study. “It is a quantitative measurement that is easily understood by both the clinician and the patient.”

«

That seems quite strenuous. Mean age 39.6, mean BMI 28.7.
link to this extract


Delivering Shipment Zero, a vision for net zero carbon shipments • Amazon corporate blog

»

Amazon has a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy, and we are making solid progress. With improvements in electric vehicles, aviation bio fuels, reusable packaging, and renewable energy, for the first time we can now see a path to net zero carbon delivery of shipments to customers, and we are setting an ambitious goal for ourselves to reach 50% of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030. We are calling this project “Shipment Zero” – it won’t be easy to achieve this goal, but it’s worth being focused and stubborn on this vision and we’re committed to seeing it through…

…To track our progress on this journey and as part of an overall commitment to sharing our sustainability goals, we plan to share Amazon’s company-wide carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs, later this year.

«

Actually? 50% isn’t ambitious enough. 100% would be ambitious. 50% isn’t one thing or the other.

link to this extract


Facebook is out of control and politicians have no idea what to do • The Guardian

Simon Jenkins:

»

Some of the report’s accusations are astonishing. Facebook “purposefully obstructed” the committee. Its boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who “continues to choose profit over data security,” held parliament in contempt. His rambling empire is portrayed as lying, thieving “digital gangsterism”. Yet British electoral law is puny. It is “unfit for purpose,” leaving elections “vulnerable to foreign influence, disinformation and voter manipulation”. Not a week passes without evidence that cybersecurity is inadequate and public services have been left vulnerable to hacking.

So far, so familiar, as are the report’s proposals: the usual comfort blankets of a code of ethics, an independent regulator and “more transparency”. We have sought them for a decade and still not found them. The real question is, why not? What are the pressures, who are the lobbyists, why the inertia? As over Brexit, parliament is fine at demolition, hopeless at construction. The spirit fails at the door marked Something Must Be Done.

The Germans are so ahead of Britain that they have Facebook staff fact-checking frantically, taking down material. America is steeling itself for a monopoly-busting assault on Silicon Valley. The Russians are running wild round the regulators. The Chinese are pioneering web “repatriation”, in effect blocking anything they consider unsuitable. Much of this is not nice for purists, but it must be full of lessons. The running joke among social media pundits is that regulation is so far behind technology – and profit – as to be out of sight.

We still await a legal declaration that social media platforms are publishers not “conduits”. That has to be rubbish. Copyright on the internet is where it was for the printed word in the 19th century, which was nowhere until the law caught up. Attempts to tax and fine social media operators fall foul of the scandalous indulgence of tax shelters. Those who do not pay taxes where they live should not be allowed to live there, period.

«

Once he gets onto a topic, Jenkins goes through it at a gallop. You can read the full DCMS report on Facebook. The evidence includes a ton of hyperlinks – including a tranche of Six4Three emails, crucial to some of the adverse findings about Facebook.
link to this extract


Music created by artificial intelligence is better than you think • Medium

Stuart Dredge:

»

Can an A.I. create original music? Absolutely. Can it create original music better than a human can? Well, it depends which human you’re comparing the A.I.’s music to, for a start.

Human-created music already spans everything from the sublime to the unlistenable. While an A.I. may not be able to out-Adele Adele (or Aretha Franklin, or Joni Mitchell) with a timeless song and performance, it can compose a compelling melody for a YouTube video, mobile game, or elevator journey faster, cheaper, and almost as well as a human equivalent. In these scenarios, it’s often the “faster” and “cheaper” parts that matter most to whoever’s paying.

The quality of A.I. music is improving in leaps and bounds as the technology becomes more sophisticated. In January 2017, Australian A.I.-music startup Popgun could listen to a human playing piano and respond with a melody that could come next; by July 2018, it could compose and play piano, bass, and drums together as a backing track for a human’s vocals.

Popgun is just one of a number of technology startups exploring the potential of A.I. and what it could mean for humans — both professional musicians and those of us who can barely bang a tambourine in time alike. Startups include Jukedeck, Amper Music, Aiva, WaveAI, Melodrive, Amadeus Code, Humtap, HumOn, AI Music, Mubert, Endel, and Boomy, while teams from Google, Sony, IBM, and Facebook are also looking at what A.I. music can do now and what it could do in the future.

«

As he points out, really quick way to get corporate music or YouTube vlog stuff. As much as anything you could get it to seed something which you improve.
link to this extract


Apple expected to launch 16in MacBook Pro, 31in 6K display, iPhones with reverse wireless charging • News18

Kunal Khullar:

»

We could see a brand new MacBook this year as reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has yet again revealed announcements that Apple could make in 2019. Known for his precise predictions, Kuo has said in a research note, that Apple will release a new 16in MacBook Pro, a 31in 6K monitor, iPhones with bilateral charging, new iPads, and more.

While it sounds uncanny, the analyst says that new MacBook Pro having dimensions between 16in and 16.5in with an updated design is expected to launch this year. This would make it the biggest MacBook since the 17in MacBook which stopped selling in 2012. As an add-on, the 13in MacBook Pro might get the option of adding 32GB of RAM. Currently, the 13in variant only supports up to 16GB of RAM while the 15-inch variant supports 32GB.

We can also expect a new display from the company, a 31.6in 6K resolution monitor which is said to feature “mini-LED backlight” to render excellent picture quality. There is also the mention of a new Mac Pro with “easy to upgrade components”.

«

These are some seriously weird predictions. 16in? There’s also predictions of a 10.2in iPad Pro. It’s all strange sizes and stuff.
link to this extract


China surveillance firm tracking millions in Xinjiang – researcher • Reuters

Cate Cadell and Philip Wen:

»

A Chinese surveillance firm is tracking the movements of more than 2.5 million people in the far-western Xinjiang region, according to a data leak flagged by a Dutch internet expert.

An online database containing names, ID card numbers, birth dates and location data was left unprotected for months by Shenzhen-based facial-recognition technology company SenseNets Technology Ltd, according to Victor Gevers, co-founder of non-profit organisation GDI.Foundation, who first noted the vulnerability in a series of social media posts last week.

Exposed data also showed about 6.7m location data points linked to the people which were gathered within 24 hours, tagged with descriptions such as “mosque”, “hotel,” “internet cafe” and other places where surveillance cameras were likely to be found.

“It was fully open and anyone without authentication had full administrative rights. You could go in the database and create, read, update and delete anything,” said Gevers.

«

When surveillance states get sloppy.
link to this extract


China reveals plans for first solar power station in space • Sydney Morning Herald

Kirsty Needham:

»

A solar power station orbiting the earth at 36,000 kilometres could tap the energy of the sun’s rays without interference from the atmosphere, or seasonal and night-time loss of sunlight, Chinese media reported.

Construction of an early experimental space power plant has begun in the inland city of Chongqing, China’s Science and Technology Daily reported on its front page.

A researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation, Pang Zhihao, said a space solar power station held the promise of providing “an inexhaustible source of clean energy for humans”.
Electric cars could be charged at any time and any place.

It could reliably supply energy 99% of the time, at six times the intensity of solar farms on earth, he said.

Chinese scientists first plan to build and launch small- to medium-sized solar power stations to be launched into the stratosphere to generate electricity, between 2021 and 2025.

The next step will be a megawatt-level space solar power station, slated for construction in 2030.

«

This is slightly bonkers. That’s a geostationary orbit, but you’d only need a tiny amount of drift for that downward beam to start zapping substantial areas of land. Or of course zapping other satellites in orbit.
link to this extract


Google may kill Android’s Back button for Android Q’s new gestures • XDA Developers

Mishaal Rahman:

»

Since Apple removed the iconic home button in favor of gesture navigation on the iPhone X, we’ve seen companies roll out their own implementations of gesture controls. Some gesture control systems like the one from OnePlus and Xiaomi are widely praised for their intuitiveness and eye-catching animations, while others like the one from Google in Android Pie have been met with mixed reviews. Just as Google accidentally leaked Android P’s gestures before Google I/O 2018, we have found evidence of a prototype revamp of navigation gestures from a leaked build of Android Q that we obtained last month.

In Android 9 Pie, the 3 button navigation system was replaced by a two-button system. Although the recent apps button was removed, the back button stayed. The home button, however, turned into a gesture pill.

Most of the complaints that people have towards Android Pie’s gestures focus on the presence of the dedicated back button and the difficulty of performing the long swipe up of the pill to open the app drawer. While I don’t know if the latter gesture will be changed in Android Q, there’s a really good chance that Google may kill the dedicated back button.

«

It’s had a good run.

link to this extract


LG puts foldable phone on hold, focuses on “optional” dual displays • Android Authority

Scott Adam Gordon:

»

In an email today, an LG spokesperson said: “Since Mr. Hwang (former MC President) made that statement in October, management didn’t see the market as becoming very favourable for an expensive, first-gen foldable smartphone. So we’ve decided to focus our efforts in other areas, such as optional dual displays.”

Earlier in January, rumors emerged suggesting an LG device with an optional display was headed to MWC 2019. The extra screen is tipped to be part of an additional phone case.

LG isn’t the only manufacturer wary of the folding phone market. Last month, Honor President George Zhao said folding phones were “too thick and heavy,” and questioned if consumers really needed them.

With all of that in mind, Kwon said LG was “fully ready” to respond to folding smartphone demand if it’s there. It seems like LG has the technology, but whether it will pursue it may depend on what everybody thinks of the Galaxy F.

«

Probably wise, given that (1) LG’s mobile phone business fell even deeper into the red in Q4 (-18% operating margin) (2) its mobile phone business shrank by 42% in Q4, and by 29% for the year. LG is becoming an afterthought in the phone space. When was its heyday?
link to this extract


Samsung gives up on Blu-Ray, will not release any new players in the US • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

»

This is not entirely surprising. The 4K UHD Blu-ray market is growing fast, but disc sales in general fell by double digits (11.5% in Q3 2018, per Variety) and the growth of streaming may have left the format without much of a future. Last year, competitor Oppo also dropped out of the Blu-ray market. As Engadget noted, the Digital Entertainment Group said that 2.3m devices capable of playing 4K Blu-rays were purchased in the U.S. in the first nine months of 2018, “but those included game consoles that might never play a disc-based movie.”

Meanwhile, subscription video services reach many times that number of households (Netflix alone is in the 150m range). It seems like there is a significant number of consumers who don’t think they need an expensive Blu-ray player to enjoy movies (as Forbes noted, well over half of disc sales are still DVDs). Additionally, Samsung’s devices didn’t support Dolby Vision, just HDR10 and HDR10+, further limiting their appeal to a subset of the Blu-ray market.

In any case, Blu-rays are not quite going the way of the dinosaur yet—indeed, they remain the best way for home viewing as close to movie-theater quality as possible—but they are being undercut by the rise of streaming.

«

Not surprising when you consider this graphic (taken from The Verge, same story) and try to find Blu-ray viewing. It’s the light green bit.


link to this extract


How Huawei targets Apple trade secrets • The Information

Wayne Ma:

»

To arrange the November meeting [with the maker of Apple’s heart sensor component for its Watch], the Huawei engineer first dangled a potential business deal with the supplier, according to messages reviewed by The Information.

“Our design is similar to Apple’s,” the engineer wrote in a text message to the executive with the supplier. “Let’s first talk generally about the cost of a prototype before we provide the schematic,” he wrote. “Sales of Huawei wearables this year are expected to hit 1 million units,” he added.

After the executive expressed reservations about making a component that was too similar to Apple’s, the Huawei engineer backpedaled. “The shape of the product won’t be the same,” the engineer said.

At one point, the Huawei engineer emailed the executive a photo of material it was considering for a heart rate sensor. “Feel free to suggest a design you already have experience with,” the engineer wrote.

The Huawei engineer attended the supplier meeting with four Huawei researchers in tow. The Huawei team spent the next hour and a half pressing the supplier for details about the Apple Watch, the executive said.

“They were trying their luck, but we wouldn’t tell them anything,” the executive said. After that, Huawei went silent.

In another incident, Huawei is suspected of copying a connector Apple developed in 2016 that made the MacBook Pro hinge thinner while still attaching the computer’s display to its logic board, according to a person familiar with the matter. A similar component, made of 13 similar parts assembled in the same manner, showed up last year in Huawei’s MateBook Pro, which was released as a competitor to Apple’s MacBooks, the person said. Apple submitted a patent for the component in 2016, and it remains pending.

Huawei approached multiple Apple suppliers with expertise making the component and provided them with the same schematic. Those suppliers recognized the component as Apple’s design and refused to make it for Huawei, the person said. But Huawei eventually found a willing manufacturer.

In response to questions from The Information, Huawei said it requires its suppliers to uphold a high standard of ethics and expects them to honor their confidentiality obligations to other customers when communicating with Huawei.

«

Huawei, the new Samsung, and then some. Odd that they can’t just disassemble things to figure this out.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,005: Google backtracks on Chrome adblock block, make your own cloud, Apple hires to up IoT game, how AI is messing up science, and more


Brexit effects mean the UK’s House of Commons needs four sides rather than two, according to a new study. CC-licensed photo by UK Parliament 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. Interactive, but not graphically. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google backtracks on Chrome modifications that would have crippled ad blockers • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

At the root of Ghostery’s benchmark into ad blocker performance stands Manifest V3, a new standard for developing Chrome extensions that Google announced last October.

The long-winded document contained many new rules about what Chrome functions and APIs an extension should use. One of the modifications was for extensions that needed to intercept and work with network requests. Google wanted extension developers to use the new DeclarativeNetRequest API instead of the older webRequest API.

This new API came with limitations that put a muzzle on the number of network requests an extension could access. It took some time before ad blocker developers caught on to what this meant, but when they did, all hell broke loose, with both extension developers and regular users accusing the browser maker of trying to kill third-party ad blockers for the benefit of Chrome’s new built-in ad blocker (which wouldn’t be impacted).

Chrome engineers justified the change by citing the performance impact of not having a maximum value for the number of network requests an extension could access.

But the Ghostery team disagreed with this assessment.

“This work [referring to the study] was motivated by one of the claims formulated in the Manifest V3 proposal of the Chromium project: ‘the extension then performs arbitrary (and potentially very slow) JavaScript’, talking about content-blockers’ ability to process all network requests,” said Cliqz, the company behind the Ghostery ad blocker.

“From the measurements, we do not think this claim holds, as all popular content-blockers are already very efficient and should not incur any noticeable slow-down for users,” they added.

«

Basically, it seems Google wants to stop any adblockers that aren’t its own, because it wants the choice of which ads are blocked to be its own, not users’.
link to this extract


How Brexit has created four new political factions – interactive graphic • The Guardian

Josh Holder:

»

Our study clusters MPs by the similarity of their voting patterns: if two MPs always vote the same way, the chart groups them tightly together.

The patterns on key Brexit votes reveal the emergence of four cross-party political factions that are wrangling for control of the negotiations.

A cross-party group of pro-European MPs usually votes with each other, with or against their own frontbenches, while Europhobe Conservatives now constitute a party within the party.

«

The votes described here probably won’t mean anything to anyone outside the UK, but scroll down and the evolution from two-party system to four-group dynamic becomes clear. The Europhobes are indeed a party within a party in the Tories, and extremists outside the party in Labour. The Europhiles, meanwhile, are effectively homeless, politically. There are rumours that the Labour Europhiles will break away this week.
link to this extract


Dropgangs, or the future of darknet markets • Opaque Link

»

To prevent theft by the distribution layer, the sales layer randomly tests dead drops by tasking different members of the distribution layer with picking up product from a dead drop and hiding it somewhere else, after verification of the contents. Usually each unit of product is tagged with a piece of paper containing a unique secret word which is used to prove to the sales layer that a dead drop was found. Members of the distribution layer have to post security – in the form of cryptocurrency – to the sales layer, and they lose part of that security with every dead drop that fails the testing, and with every dead drop they failed to test. So far, no reports of using violence to ensure performance of members of these structures has become known.

This concept of using messaging, cryptocurrency and dead drops even within the merchant structure allows for the members within each layer being completely isolated from each other, and not knowing anything about higher layers at all. There is no trace to follow if a distribution layer member is captured while servicing a dead drop. He will often not even be distinguishable from a regular customer. This makes these structures extremely secure against infiltration, takeover and capture. They are inherently resilient.

Furthermore the members of the sales layer often employ advanced physical tradecraft to prevent surveillance by the procurement layer when they pick up product. This makes it very hard to dismantle such a structure from the top.

If members of such a structure are captured they usually have no critical information to share, no information about persons, places, times of meeting. No interaction that would make this information necessary ever takes place.

It is because of the use of dead drops and hierarchical structures that we call this kind of organization a Dropgang.

«

We ain’t on the Silk Road any more.
link to this extract


Differential privacy: an easy case • Substack

Mark Hansen:

»

By law, the Census Bureau is required to keep our responses to its questionnaires confidential. And so, over decades, it has applied several “disclosure avoidance” techniques when it publishes data — these have been meticulously catalogued by Laura McKenna, going back to the 1970 census.

But for 2020, the bureau will instead release its data tables using a “formal privacy” framework known as “differential privacy.”

A unique feature of this new approach is that it explicitly quantifies privacy loss and provides mathematically provable privacy guarantees for those whose data are published as part of the bureau’s tables. 

Differential privacy is simply a mathematical definition of privacy. While there are legal and ethical standards for protecting our personal data, differential privacy is specifically designed to address the risks we face in a world of “big data” and “big computation.”

Given its mathematical origins, discussions of differential privacy can become technical very quickly.

«

Apple and Google use this to make it harder to de-anonymise personal data. This is quite a long post, but it explains it while sticking to quite simple maths.
link to this extract


Internet censorship: Facebook, Patreon will always be frustrating • Bloomberg

Tyler Cowen:

»

Facebook recently has devoted a lot of resources to regulating speech on its platform. Yet undesired uses of the platform hardly have gone away, especially outside the U.S. Furthermore, the need for human judgment makes algorithms increasingly costly and hard to scale. As Facebook grows bigger and reaches across more regions and languages, it becomes harder to find the humans who can apply what Facebook considers to be the proper standards. 1

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

One view, which may appear cynical, is that the platforms are worth having, so they should appease us by at least trying to regulate effectively, even though both of us know they won’t really succeed. Circa 2019, I don’t see a better solution. Another view is that we’d be better off with how things were a few years ago, when platform regulation of speech was not such a big issue. After all, we Americans don’t flip out when we learn that Amazon sells copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The problem is that once you learn about what you can’t have — speech regulation that is scalable, consistent and hostile to bad agents — it is hard to get used to that fact. Going forward, we’re likely to see platform companies trying harder and harder, and their critics getting louder and louder.

«

(Via Nathan Taylor’s fine roundup.)
link to this extract


The cloud is just someone else’s computer… but what if it were your computer? • Coding Horror

»

Given the prevalence and maturity of cloud providers, it’s even a little controversial these days to colocate actual servers, but we’ve also experimented with colocating mini-pcs in various hosting roles. I’m still curious why there isn’t more of a cottage industry for colocating mini PCs. Because … I think there should be.

I originally wrote about the scooter computers we added to our Discourse infrastructure in 2016, plus my own colocation experiment that ran concurrently. Over the last three years of both experiments, I’ve concluded that these little boxes are plenty reliable, with one role specific caveat that I’ll explain in the comments. I remain an unabashed fan of mini-PC colocation. I like it so much I put together a new 2019 iteration…

…Let’s break this down and see what the actual costs of colocating a Mini-PC are versus the cloud. Let’s assume a useful life of say, three years? Given the plateauing of CPU speeds, I think five years is more realistic, but let’s use the more conservative number to be safe.

$880 mini-pc 32GB RAM, 6 CPUs, 500GB SSD
$120 taxes / shipping / misc
$29 × 12 × 3 = $1,044
That’s $2,044 for three years of hosting. How can we do on Digital Ocean? Per their current pricing page:

32GB RAM, 8 vCPUs, 640GB SSD
$160/month
$160 × 12 × 3 = $5,760

«

Colocation is quite a thing.

link to this extract


AAAS: Machine learning ‘causing science crisis’ • BBC News

»

Machine-learning techniques used by thousands of scientists to analyse data are producing results that are misleading and often completely wrong.

Dr Genevera Allen from Rice University in Houston said that the increased use of such systems was contributing to a “crisis in science”.

She warned scientists that if they didn’t improve their techniques they would be wasting both time and money. Her research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

A growing amount of scientific research involves using machine learning software to analyse data that has already been collected. This happens across many subject areas ranging from biomedical research to astronomy. The data sets are very large and expensive.

But, according to Dr Allen, the answers they come up with are likely to be inaccurate or wrong because the software is identifying patterns that exist only in that data set and not the real world.

“Often these studies are not found out to be inaccurate until there’s another real big dataset that someone applies these techniques to and says ‘oh my goodness, the results of these two studies don’t overlap‘,” she said.

“There is general recognition of a reproducibility crisis in science right now. I would venture to argue that a huge part of that does come from the use of machine learning techniques in science.”

«

Reproducibility means what it says: can you get the same result starting from the same data? This isn’t a new problem – it’s just becoming more visible.
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The convergence of the phone and laptop • AVC

Fred Wilson:

»

The Gotham Gal [Wilson’s wife, who also works in venture capital] wanted to get a new laptop. Her late 2015 Macbook has started to fade on her.

So yesterday we made a visit to the local Apple Store and checked out the options. We looked at the Macbooks, the Macbook Airs, and we also looked at the iPad Pros. We debated the choice and she ended up deciding to go for the iPad Pro. We work with a few people who have iPad Pros and love them. And she noticed how much I am using and enjoying my Pixel Slate.

One of the most interesting things about these hybrid tablet/laptop devices is that they run operating systems that are designed for the tablet or phone. They are touch devices like our phones vs mouse devices like our laptops.

A good example of this is how I do email on my Pixel Slate. I could run Gmail in the browser on my Pixel Slate. But I have found it much more pleasing to do email in the Gmail Android App on my Pixel Slate. I swipe emails away like I do on my phone. But I also have the keyboard when I want to write a long response. It is literally the best of both worlds.

«

I think she’s going to be happy with it, though I wonder what is actually meant by saying a 2015 machine “has started to fade”. The comments on the piece are worth reading too: as many saying she’ll go back to a laptop as saying the tablet is the way forward.
link to this extract


Sam Jadallah to join Apple as its new leader on smart home devices • CNBC

Christina Farr:

»

Jadallah previously ran a start-up called Otto, which made a $700 lock that was backed by the venture firm Greylock. He also spent more than a decade at Microsoft, and had a stint in venture capital at the firm Mohr Davidow.

Otto suspended its operations four months after launching its beautifully-designed Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-enabled luxury lock. In interviews, Jadallah hinted at having found a buyer, which pulled out at the last minute.

About 70% of the early team behind Otto were actually poached from Apple’s ranks, Jadallah has previously said. The lock was compared favorably by reviewers to the “Apple of smart locks.” It’s not clear whether Jadallah will bring these early employees with him, or will have a fresh mandate to hire. There are currently about half-a-dozen job openings in Apple’s home division.

But Apple also competes against rivals like Alphabet and Amazon, both of which have had a head start on moving into the home.

«

As was discussed on the latest Talk Show podcast by John Gruber and Rich Mogull, it makes no sense for Apple to offer an Apple TV, HomePod, integration to home devices via HomeKit, and yet not have something comparable to Eero or the Google Home router. Maybe Jadallah will see that too.
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Major games publishers are feeling the impact of peaking attention • MIDiA Research

Karol Severin:

»

Earlier in February, Electronic Arts (EA) reported disappointing quarterly results; now Activision has laid off nearly 800 staff, mostly in marketing and sales.

As MIDiA has reported multiple times before, engagement has declined throughout the sector, suggesting that the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them.

This downward trend in engagement has persisted for a while now, and the latest quarterly results from some major games publishers confirm that a revenue slowdown will ultimately follow consumer behaviour. Arguably sooner than most of the games industry would have thought.

Publishers will be quick to blame declining engagement and revenues on Fortnite. While the title indeed intensified the manifestation of the peak attention economy dynamics among gamers, the coming slowdown is part of a much bigger challenge – how to capture attention in an increasingly attention-scarce landscape…

…Not only is engagement declining across mobile, PC and console gaming, at the same time, video is winning the race against gaming in capturing attention on multipurpose devices such as PC. Between Q1 and Q4 2018, gaming on PC declined faster than TV show viewing on PC among gamers.

«

They’re all watching Twitch or YouTube rather than playing the games themselves. It’s like football losing its park players. But the idea that the attention economy can’t grow any further is quite dramatic.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,004: AI gets closer and creepier, Facebook’s watch list, Amazon won’t make it in New York, what the FBI director saw, and more


A Little Red Book? How retro. President Xi makes you use an app now. CC-licensed photo by g33kgrrl 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. Spared again! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s security team tracks posts, location for ‘BOLO’ threat list • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

»

In early 2018, a Facebook user made a public threat on the social network against one of the company’s offices in Europe.

Facebook picked up the threat, pulled the user’s data and determined he was in the same country as the office he was targeting. The company informed the authorities about the threat and directed its security officers to be on the lookout for the user.

“He made a veiled threat that ‘Tomorrow everyone is going to pay’ or something to that effect,” a former Facebook security employee told CNBC.

The incident is representative of the steps Facebook takes to keep its offices, executives and employees protected, according to more than a dozen former Facebook employees who spoke with CNBC. The company mines its social network for threatening comments, and in some cases uses its products to track the location of people it believes present a credible threat.

«

“BOLO” is “be on the lookout”. There seemed to be a fair amount of pearl-clutching about this online, but it seems reasonable to me: recall that a woman critically injured three people in a shooting at YouTube in April 2018, and she had made lots of noise about her anger on social media ahead of time. I’d say it’s sensible to protect your employees.
link to this extract


The dawn of the Little Red Phone • China Media Project

David Bandurski:

»

The platform is interesting and significant not only for the nature of its content as reflective of a renewed push to enforce the dominance of the Party’s ideology and positions, and to consolidate the power of Xi Jinping around the developing notion of “Xi Jinping Thought,” but also for the way it reinvents the process of ideological dominance for the digital era.

This is most evident in the points system employed by the “Xi Study Strong Nation,” the way it is engineered to make demands, in actionable and measurable ways, on how Party members spend what might otherwise be considered their personal time.

The idea is that users of the platform earn points through their active engagement with the material, so that more time on the platform rewards more points. Reading one article earns you 0.1 points. Watching a single video earns you 0.1  points. And a full 30 minutes of either reading articles or viewing video content earns you a full 1.0 points. The beauty of digital media technology — disquieting for those who care about privacy and freedom from intrusion — is that our smart apps know a great deal about our actual behaviour. This means that “Xi Study Strong Nation” (and by extension the Party) cannot be bamboozled into awarding points in the absence of real engagement, meaning that you will have to not just open an article or video but will have to stick with it. The app will know if you’ve only viewed the first paragraph, or if you’ve moved away from the video. If you want to earn points (and you are probably now required to), you will have to devote your full attention to the Party.

«

Scary. It really is 1984-style surveillance.
link to this extract


New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

»

Feed it the first few paragraphs of a Guardian story about Brexit, and its output is plausible newspaper prose, replete with “quotes” from Jeremy Corbyn, mentions of the Irish border, and answers from the prime minister’s spokesman.

One such, completely artificial, paragraph reads: “Asked to clarify the reports, a spokesman for May said: ‘The PM has made it absolutely clear her intention is to leave the EU as quickly as is possible and that will be under her negotiating mandate as confirmed in the Queen’s speech last week.’”

From a research standpoint, GPT2 is groundbreaking in two ways. One is its size, says Dario Amodei, OpenAI’s research director. The models “were 12 times bigger, and the dataset was 15 times bigger and much broader” than the previous state-of-the-art AI model. It was trained on a dataset containing about 10m articles, selected by trawling the social news site Reddit for links with more than three votes. The vast collection of text weighed in at 40 GB, enough to store about 35,000 copies of Moby Dick.

The amount of data GPT2 was trained on directly affected its quality, giving it more knowledge of how to understand written text. It also led to the second breakthrough. GPT2 is far more general purpose than previous text models.

«

They’re not releasing it because they haven’t yet figured out all the ways it might be used maliciously. Echoes the moratorium on genetic engineering of bacteria in the 1970s. But the first time I’ve seen it for a neural network.

I mean, imagine it allied to the next system…
link to this extract


Thispersondoesnotexist.com is face-generating AI at its creepiest • The Next Web

Tristan Greene:

»

Nvidia is a company most lauded for its impressive graphics cards. But in the world of machine learning, it’s one of the most ingenious companies using deep learning today. A couple of years back TNW reported on a new generative adversarial network (GAN) the company developed. At the time, it was an amazing example of how powerful deep learning had become.

This was cutting edge technology barely a year ago. Today, you can use it on your phone. Just point your web browser to “thispersondoesnotexist.com” and voila: the next time your grandmother asks when you’re going to settle down with someone nice, you can conjure up a picture to show them.

«

It really is pretty amazing. The paper explaining it is remarkable. Try it: Thispersondoesnotexist.com.
link to this extract


Amazon cancels HQ2 plans in New York City • WSJ

Laura Stevens, Jimmy Vielkind and Katie Honan:

»

The company said in a blog post Thursday that its commitment to a new headquarters required supportive elected officials and collaboration.

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City,” the company said.

Amazon’s decision to abandon plans for a new headquarters in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City marks a stunning reversal. Amazon spent a year conducting a public search for a second headquarters, in which hundreds of locations vied for a shot at a promised 50,000 jobs and $5bn in investment…

The governor and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, fellow Democrats who have often clashed, led the deal to woo Amazon and have continued to support it.

Local officials, though, questioned everything from the project’s impact on transportation to neighborhood gentrification, as well as Amazon’s opposition to unionization.

Mr. de Blasio said Thursday afternoon that the company threw away an opportunity to be in New York. “You have to be tough to make it in New York City,” he said in a statement. “We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world. Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity.”

«

link to this extract


Ad IDs behaving badly • The Appcensus Blog

Serge Egelman:

»

both iOS and Android have policies that prohibit developers from transmitting other identifiers alongside the ad ID. For example, in 2017, it was major news that Uber’s app had violated iOS App Store privacy guidelines by collecting non-resettable persistent identifiers. Tim Cook personally threatened to have the Uber app removed from the store. Similarly, Google’s Play Store policy says that the ad ID cannot be transmitted alongside other identifiers without users’ explicit consent, and that for advertising purposes, the ad ID is the only identifier that can be used…

…I examined the AppCensus database [of Android apps] to examine compliance with this policy. That is, are there apps violating this policy by transmitting the ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers to advertisers? When I performed this experiment last September, there were approximately 24k apps in our database that we had observed transmitting the ad ID. Of these, approximately 17k (i.e., ~70%) were transmitting the ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers. Based on the data recipients of some of the most popular offenders, these are clearly being used for advertising purposes.

…as of today, there are over 18k distinct apps transmitting the Ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers.

In September, our research group reported just under 17k apps to Google that were transmitting the ad ID alongside other identifiers. The data we gave them included the data types being transmitted and a list of the recipient domains, which included some of the following companies involved in mobile advertising…

«

They’ve heard nothing from Google. Those apps have billions of installs. Among the companies involved in mobile advertising is DoubleClick. You know, Google’s advertising arm.
link to this extract


The RCA Selectron — Tubes vs. Transistor

»

It’s 1959 and this man is worried. He may work for General Electric but he has counterparts at Westinghouse, Sylvania, RCA and the rest of the Tube Titans and they are worried as well. That Regency pocket transistor radio may be a cute novelty item but IBM has just announced their 1401 and 1620 computer lines. And they use only transistors. No tubes.

This man is worried because he sees his entire capital plant becoming scrap within the decade. He makes tubes.

But this is America headed into the sixties. There is nothing that a half a dozen paunchy middle-aged white men can’t solve over a lunch, some cigars, and more than a few martinis. A plan was hatched: A smear campaign on that little three-legged bastard.

«

And it would have worked if it hadn’t been for you interfering kids with your TRANSISTOR RADIOS.
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Chinese smartphone vendors take a record 32% market share in Europe in 2018 • Canalys

»

Canalys estimates show that European smartphone shipments fell 4% in 2018 to 197m units. In Q4 2018, shipments fell 2% to 57m, though Chinese vendors gained significantly. Samsung remained the largest vendor in 2018 but its shipments were down over 10% at 61.6m units. Apple was down 6% but clung onto second place with 42.8m units shipped. Huawei was the stand-out vendor, growing 54% with 42.5m shipments. Relative newcomers Xiaomi and HMD Global grew strongly and were fourth and fifth respectively.

“The US administration is causing Chinese companies to invest in Europe over the US. The European market is mature, and replacement rates have lengthened, but there is an opportunity for Chinese brands to displace the market incumbents. The likes of Huawei and Xiaomi bring price competition that has stunned their rivals as they use their size against the smaller brands in Europe.”

Western European smartphone shipments fell 8%, the biggest decline of the sub-regions, to 128m units in 2018, the lowest level since 2013. An increase in average selling prices, caused by an uplift in flagship pricing by Apple, Samsung and Huawei, offset some of the declines.

«

China, Europe, the US: all shrinking.
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Ex-FBI director: every day is a new low in Trump’s White House • The Atlantic

Andrew G. McCabe, in an extract from his new book about his time as FBI director, describes a call he took from Trump on his first day in the job, in May 2017 – when Trump demanded to know why James Comey had been allowed to fly back, from giving a speech, on an official plane:

»

I told him that bureau lawyers had assured me there was no legal issue with Comey coming home on the plane. I decided that he should do so. The existing threat assessment indicated he was still at risk, so he needed a protection detail. Since the members of the protection detail would all be coming home, it made sense to bring everybody back on the same plane they had used to fly out there. It was coming back anyway. The president flew off the handle: That’s not right! I don’t approve of that! That’s wrong! He reiterated his point five or seven times.

I said, I’m sorry that you disagree, sir. But it was my decision, and that’s how I decided. The president said, I want you to look into that! I thought to myself: What am I going to look into? I just told you I made that decision.

The ranting against Comey spiraled. I waited until he had talked himself out.

Toward the end of the conversation, the president brought up the subject of my wife. Jill had run unsuccessfully for the Virginia state Senate back in 2015, and the president had said false and malicious things about her during his campaign in order to tarnish the FBI. He said, How is your wife? I said, She’s fine. He said, When she lost her election, that must have been very tough to lose. How did she handle losing? Is it tough to lose?
I replied, I guess it’s tough to lose anything. But she’s rededicated herself to her career and her job and taking care of kids in the emergency room. That’s what she does.

He replied in a tone that sounded like a sneer. He said, “Yeah, that must’ve been really tough. To lose. To be a loser.”

I wrote a memo about this conversation that very day. I wrote memos about my interactions with President Trump for the same reason that Comey did: to have a contemporaneous record of conversations with a person who cannot be trusted.

«

link to this extract


What happened when I moved into a house that had solar panels • Bloomberg

Esmé Deprez:

»

The solar array was a modern addition to a property that otherwise hadn’t changed much since 1950, when the late owner, Michael “Jug” Jogoleff, moved into the home’s 948 square feet as a preschooler with his mother and aunt, transplants from Iowa. He never moved again. He grew tall and barrel-chested and remained a lifelong bachelor, becoming a neighborhood fixture who organized block parties. His décor reflected his obsession with all things electronic, in particular ham radio. “Radios and computers were packed into every available square inch of space he could find,” and “his roof bristled with every form of antenna,” Santa Barbara’s amateur radio club wrote after he died of cancer at the age of 70 in January 2017. “He was the consummate ‘ham’ and could build anything—and did! Amateur radio has lost one of the last of the ‘real hams.’”

Two days after walking through Jug’s ham shack, we made an offer. A week later, just before we entered escrow, we learned the solar array hadn’t belonged to Jug. It was, in the language of the industry, a third-party-owner, or TPO, system, belonging to Sunrun Inc., the largest provider of residential solar in the U.S. I started looking into the TPO model. It’s used less often than it once was, but it’s been important in making residential solar, once out of reach for most people, much more widespread. The reason is simple: homeowners usually pay nothing upfront. A company like Sunrun puts solar panels on your roof, connects them to your home, and claims a tax benefit for owning the system. Going forward, you pay Sunrun to provide the bulk of your electricity needs instead of your utility.

I’d soon learn that the system was tied to the title of the house. It appeared that if we bought Jug’s place, we’d have to assume his lease arrangement with Sunrun. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this as a buyer, but it definitely piqued my curiosity as a journalist. I set out to examine the value proposition carefully.

«

A good thing she did: third-party ownership is pretty poisonous, especially when it comes to selling (or buying) a property. There’s a lot to this article, which digs deep into what’s happening with this model – much of it built on unreliable financial promises. Solar works, but capitalism about the future sometimes doesn’t.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “computer programmer” did exist as a notion in the 1950s, contrary to my surprise expressed in No.1,003. Thanks Seth Finkelstein for the info.

Start Up No.1,003: Apple plans video launch event, tracking the sanction-breakers, AI loses the debating game, whitespace killed the company app, and more


Women were some of the earliest programmers – here with a decryption system for the US Army. CC-licensed photo by brewbooks 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 12 links for you. Happy Valentine’s day, keep on with the love. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The secret history of women in coding • The New York Times

Clive Thompson:

»

[Mary Allen] Wilkes remembered her junior high school teacher’s suggestion [from her geography teacher, who in 1950 said she should be a computer programmer]. In college, she heard that computers were supposed to be the key to the future. She knew that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a few of them. So on the day of her graduation, she had her parents drive her over to M.I.T. and marched into the school’s employment office. “Do you have any jobs for computer programmers?” she asked. They did, and they hired her.

It might seem strange now that they were happy to take on a random applicant with absolutely no experience in computer programming. But in those days, almost nobody had any experience writing code. The discipline did not yet really exist; there were vanishingly few college courses in it, and no majors. (Stanford, for example, didn’t create a computer-science department until 1965.) So instead, institutions that needed programmers just used aptitude tests to evaluate applicants’ ability to think logically. Wilkes happened to have some intellectual preparation: As a philosophy major, she had studied symbolic logic, which can involve creating arguments and inferences by stringing together and/or statements in a way that resembles coding.

Wilkes quickly became a programming whiz. She first worked on the IBM 704, which required her to write in an abstruse “assembly language.” (A typical command might be something like “LXA A, K,” telling the computer to take the number in Location A of its memory and load it into to the “Index Register” K.) Even getting the program into the IBM 704 was a laborious affair. There were no keyboards or screens; Wilkes had to write a program on paper and give it to a typist, who translated each command into holes on a punch card. She would carry boxes of commands to an “operator,” who then fed a stack of such cards into a reader. The computer executed the program and produced results, typed out on a printer.

«

To me, the remarkable person in this is the geography teacher in 1950. Why did they think of a woman being a computer programmer – a discipline that didn’t exist? The word “computer” mean “person who computes” at that time. Think about it too long, and you could start thinking it’s a meddling time traveller.
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Apple invites Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon to video launch • Bloomberg

Anousha Sakoui and Mark Gurman:

»

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant is planning a March 25 event to announce both services, according to people familiar with the plan. The iPhone maker invited Hollywood stars, including Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner and director JJ Abrams, to attend, one of the people said.

The video service is similar to Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video and Netflix Inc. products, and will include TV shows and movies either acquired or funded by Apple. The company has created dozens of original programs so far, but hasn’t wrapped them in a subscription yet. The paid service will launch by the summer, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans.

The company’s premium news service will be integrated into the Apple News app, letting consumers subscribe to a bundle of titles for a monthly fee. Some publishing executives are wary of taking part, Bloomberg News reported in December.

Final details are still being worked out, and Apple’s plans could change…

The magazine subscription service, which has been in testing with Apple employees for months, will launch as part of an iOS 12.2 update scheduled for release this spring. The updated Apple News app will include a Magazines tab similar to the app Texture, which Apple acquired last year.

«

link to this extract


Apple, Google in crosshairs for carrying app that lets Saudi men track wives • NPR

Laura Sydell:

»

In Saudi Arabia, women’s lives are highly restricted. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, women have always needed permission from a male guardian, usually a father or husband, to leave the country. In the past, paper forms were required prior to travel.

The Absher app makes the process a lot more convenient for Saudi men. And it’s drawing criticism, especially from human rights advocacy groups…

…This week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to both companies asking them to remove the app. “Saudi men can also reportedly use Absher to receive real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” he wrote.

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about Absher. “I haven’t heard about it,” he said. “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”

NPR also reached out to Google, but the company has not responded…

Ironically, Absher has also been helpful to a few women trying to escape the repressive Saudi regime. [HRW senior researcher Rothna] Begum says some women have managed to secretly change the settings in the app on their male guardian’s phone so that it allows them to travel.

However, she says, Google and Apple need to push back against the Saudi government and either disable the app entirely or disable the features that enable men to track women in their families. “By not saying anything,” she says, “they’ve allowed the government to facilitate the abuse.”

«

link to this extract


How hard is it to have a conversation on Twitter? So hard even the CEO can’t do it • Recode

Kurt Wagner:

»

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Recode co-founder Kara Swisher agreed to conduct an interview Tuesday on Twitter, and it had all the makings of a great read: the CEO of one of the most influential and controversial tech platforms in the world taking questions from one of the industry’s most ferocious reporters.

The only problem? No one could follow along.

Despite the public interview and a dedicated hashtag (#karajack) for the event, it didn’t take long before the dozens of tweets between the two started to get confusing. They were listed out of order, other users started chiming in, and there was no way to properly follow the conversation thread.

Swisher’s questions about Twitter’s complex abuse policies and Dorsey’s subsequent responses were floating around my timeline along with the regular tech news and opinions I always look at. If you wanted to find a permanent thread of the chat, you had to visit one of either Kara or Jack’s pages and continually refresh. It made for a difficult and confusing experience.

Dorsey even admitted so himself.

“I am going to start a NEW thread to make it easy for people to follow (@waltmossberg just texted me that it is a “chaotic hellpit”),” Swisher tweeted, referencing Recode’s other co-founder, the now-retired Walt Mossberg.

«

I think this is a misunderstanding. Twitter isn’t a real-time service in that way. This is trying to use a hammer as a saw.
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Tracking sanctions-busting ships on the high seas • BBC News

Chris Baraniuk:

»

For a long time, being out at sea meant being out of sight and out of reach. And all kinds of shenanigans went on as a result – countries secretly selling oil and other goods to countries they’re not supposed to under international sanctions rules, for example, not to mention piracy and kidnapping.

The problem is that captains can easily switch off the current way of tracking ships, called the Automatic Identification System (AIS), hiding their location.

But now thousands of surveillance satellites have been launched into space, and artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied to the images they take. There’s no longer anywhere for such ships to hide.

Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers.com, says his firm’s satellite imagery analysis has identified Iranian tankers moving in and out of port, despite US sanctions restricting much of the country’s oil exports. He’s watched North Korea – which is limited by international rules to 500,000 barrels of refined oil every year – taking delivery of fuel via ship-to-ship transfers on the open ocean.

Turning off the AIS transponders that broadcast a ship’s position, course and speed, is no longer a guarantee of anonymity.

His firm can even ascertain what cargo a ship is carrying – and how much – just by looking at its shadow on the water, says Mr Madani.

«

Tankertrackers is pretty cheap if you were into analysis of oil supply lines – $299 per year.
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Dimensions.Guide: a database of dimensioned drawings

»

Dimensions.Guide is a comprehensive reference database of dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of the everyday objects and spaces that make up our world. Created as a universal resource to better communicate the basic properties, systems, and logics of our built environment, Dimensions.Guide is a free platform for increasing public and professional knowledge of life and design.

«

Wow. It looks like a sort of Wikipedia of design elements – potentially, a fabulous resource.
link to this extract


Huawei accuses US of ‘political’ campaign against telecoms group • Financial Times

Yuan Yang:

»

[Huawei chairman] Eric Xu questioned the US’s motives on Wednesday, pointing to Washington’s extensive surveillance programmes.

“Is [the US] truly thinking about cyber security and protecting the privacy of other countries’ citizens, or do they have other motives?” he said.

“Some say that because these countries are using Huawei equipment, it makes it harder for US agencies to obtain these countries’ data,” he added.

Mr Xu also revealed that Huawei would spend more than $2bn to restructure the code used in its telecoms services worldwide after a series of “confrontational” meetings with Britain’s cyber security agency over the issue.

The company is likely to face further criticism from the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, the UK watchdog that reviews the company’s security systems, which last year noted the “repeated discovery of critical shortfalls” in the group’s technical processes. Last week, Huawei told the UK government it would take up to five years to address the concerns.

According to Mr Xu, the watchdog had demanded that Huawei rewrite the code it uses in telecoms products to be clearer and more readable, including legacy code written decades ago…

…Mr Xu also dismissed concerns about Huawei being blocked in Australia and New Zealand, saying: “The Australian market isn’t as big as [the Chinese city of] Guangzhou, and the New Zealand market isn’t as big as my hometown.”

«

link to this extract


IBM AI fails to beat human debating champion • Engadget

Saqib Shah:

»

Champion debater Harish Natarajan triumphed in a live showdown against IBM’s Miss Debater AI at the company’s Think Conference in San Francisco on Monday. The 2012 European Debate winner and IBM’s black monolith exchanged quick retorts on pre-school subsidies for 25 minutes before the crowd hailed Natarajan the victor.

Each side was given 15 minutes to prep for the clash, after which they presented a four-minute opening statement, a four-minute rebuttal, and a two-minute summary. The 700-strong audience, meanwhile, was comprised of top debaters from Bay Area schools and more than a hundred journalists.

Miss Debater (formerly known as Project Debater) pulled arguments from its database of 10 billion sentences taken from newspapers and academic journals. A female voice emanating from the human-sized black box spouted its answers, while three blue balls floated around its display.

The face-off was the latest event in IBM’s “grand challenge” series pitting humans against its intelligent machines. In 1996, its computer system beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, though the Russian later accused the IBM team of cheating, something that the company denies to this day – he later retracted some of his allegations. Then, in 2011, its Watson supercomputer trounced two record-winning Jeopardy! contestants.

In the lead-up to Monday’s bout, Natarajan suggested that debating may prove a harder battleground for AI than Go and video games. “Debating is…more complicated for a machine than any of those…” he wrote in a LinkedIn post.

«

Well I’d hope that debating was tougher than just stringing sentences together. Though I doubt Natarajan has any real idea of how hard Go or Dota 2 are for a machine or a human at the very top level.
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How white space killed an enterprise app (and why data density matters) • UX Design

Christie Lenneville and Patrick Deuley:

»

The protagonist is a well-intentioned UX Designer at a large high-tech company who was given a new project: Redesign an internal control panel that was ugly, hard to learn, and stuffed full of content on every screen (so much data). Everyone agreed it needed modernization—it looked like it was from the early 2000s, after all!

So this designer set out to solve the problem, taking cues from modern consumer apps.

The new design simplified every screen. It broke apart huge pages into smaller, more focused ones. It used progressive disclosure to hide presumably insignificant information. And since today’s users don’t mind scrolling (ahem), the design incorporated white space in all of the usual places—around headers, content blocks, and in table rows. The breathing room was glorious.

It lasted one month before the company was forced to retire it.

Users absolutely hated the new system. Sure, the old system was ugly, but it had everything they needed, right at their fingertips! Their jobs were incredibly fast paced—they worked in a tech support call center and were rated on productivity metrics. They didn’t have time to click or scroll to find information while the clock was literally ticking.

In their eyes, this new system wasn’t an upgrade, it was a boondoggle. It wasn’t just a little frustrating—it made them mad.

«

But, as it explains, you can do better design for those awful enterprise apps.
link to this extract


Indian smartphone market grows 10% in 2018 • Canalys Newsroom

»

India remained one of the bright spots in an otherwise declining global smartphone market in 2018. Smartphone shipments in the country were up by more than 12m at 137m, the best growth of any market in absolute volume terms. India now accounts more than 10% of the world’s smartphone market, up from 6% five years ago. It is one of six markets in the top 20 that posted positive full-year growth, with its performance outshone by Indonesia (17.1%), Russia (14.1%) and Italy (10.0%). Of these four markets, India is the only one that has seen consecutive growth for the past three years.

In terms of vendors, Xiaomi took pole position for the first time in 2018, shipping 41.0m units to take 30% of the total Indian smartphone market. Despite being knocked off first place, Samsung still grew shipments by 20% and took a 26% share of the market. Vivo, Oppo and Micromax held third, fourth and fifth place respectively.

«

Notice the squeeze on “others” there.
link to this extract


UK smartphone shipments fell 14% in Q4 2018 • Strategy Analytics

»

Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Apple shipped 3.0 million smartphones and captured a dominant 41% marketshare in the UK during Q4 2018. Apple has a prestigious brand and extensive retail presence across the UK market. Despite a slight decline from a year ago, Apple’s grip on the UK smartphone market remains fairly tight and the iPhone has two times more marketshare than closest rival Samsung.”

Woody Oh, Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung clung on to second place with 19% smartphone marketshare in the UK during Q4 2018, down from 21% a year ago. Samsung’s UK smartphone marketshare has more than halved during the past six years. Samsung is facing intense competitive pressure from Huawei, who is targeting Samsung’s core segments in the midrange and premium-tier with popular models such as the P20. Huawei’s UK smartphone marketshare has leapt from 8% in Q4 2017 to 12% in Q4 2018. Huawei is growing fast in the UK, due to heavy co-marketing of its models with major carriers like EE.”

«

One other thing: Q4 is the biggest sales quarter of the year. Huawei is clearly eating Samsung’s breakfast, lunch and tea.
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Dollar sales of smartwatches in the US are up 51%, totalling nearly $5bn • NPD

»

While Apple is the clear market leader, the new Smartwatch Total Market Report reveals that the top three brands (Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit) made up 88% of smartwatch unit sales during the timeframe. However, traditional watch manufacturers, like Fossil, and fitness-focused brands, like Garmin, are working to grow their share of the market, as they continue to expand into the smartwatch category.

“Over the last 18 months smartwatch sales gained strong momentum, proving the naysayers, who didn’t think the category could achieve mainstream acceptance, had potentially judged too soon,” said Weston Henderek, director, industry analyst for NPD Connected Intelligence. “The ability to be truly connected via built-in LTE without the need to have a smartphone nearby proved to be a tipping point for consumers, as they now recognize the value in being able to complete a wide range of tasks on the device including receiving notifications, messaging, accessing smart home controls, and more.”

Sixteen% of US adults now own a smartwatch, which is up from 12% in December of 2017, based on NPD’s Consumers and Wearables Report. The younger 18-34 age demographic is currently carrying the overall growth in the smartwatch market with 23% penetration.

«

Android/Wear OS has, at best, 12% on that basis (Samsung has its own GearOS). The modular approach just doesn’t work for smartwatches at this stage of the platform – if it ever will.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,002: the DNA test explosion, your smart light is chatting, more Apple Enterprise Cert problems, how to count to 1,000, and more


Your gut bacteria can affect how prone you are to depression. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster 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. Jumpers for goalposts. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

»

As many people purchased consumer DNA tests in 2018 as in all previous years combined, MIT Technology Review has found.

Surging public interest in ancestry and health—propelled by heavy TV and online marketing—was behind a record year for sales of the tests, which entice consumers to spit in a tube or swab their cheeks and ship the sample back to have their genomes analyzed.

By the start of 2019, more than 26 million consumers had added their DNA to four leading commercial ancestry and health databases, according to our estimates. If the pace continues, the gene troves could hold data on the genetic makeup of more than 100 million people within 24 months.

The testing frenzy is creating two superpowers—Ancestry of Lehi, Utah, and 23andMe of Menlo Park, California. These privately held companies now have the world’s largest collections of human DNA.

For consumers, the tests—which cost as little as $59—offer entertainment, clues to ancestry, and a chance of discovering family secrets, such as siblings you didn’t know about. But the consequences for privacy go well beyond that.

«

Individually, people care about their privacy. Collectively, they don’t, or can’t.
link to this extract


Publishers chafe at Apple’s terms for subscription news service • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin, Lukas Alpert and Tripp Mickle:

»

Apple’s plan to create a subscription service for news is running into resistance from major publishers over the tech giant’s proposed financial terms, according to people familiar with the situation, complicating an initiative that is part of the company’s efforts to offset slowing iPhone sales.

In its pitch to some news organizations, the Cupertino, Calif., company has said it would keep about half of the subscription revenue from the service, the people said. The service, described by industry executives as a “Netflix for news,” would allow users to read an unlimited amount of content from participating publishers for a monthly fee. It is expected to launch later this year as a paid tier of the Apple News app, the people said.

The rest of the revenue would go into a pool that would be divided among publishers according to the amount of time users spend engaged with their articles, the people said. Representatives from Apple have told publishers that the subscription service could be priced at about $10 a month, similar to Apple’s streaming music service, but the final price could change, some of the people said.

«

The story’s clearly coming from the news orgs, but they’re not very clear about what Apple’s offering and not offering. Doesn’t sound too attractive for them; they’d do better through the App Store (max 30% payout, then 15%), but even better getting the subscriptions directly. Hard to think why Apple thinks it has any leverage here; conversions are sure to be low from the News app, because there’s always another news source offered free. (Also: “offset slowing iPhone sales”? Please. The take on few million subscriptions would barely be a rounding error for any of Apple’s divisions.)
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Links between gut microbes and depression strengthened • Nature

»

The authors used DNA sequencing to analyse microbiota in the faeces of more than 1,000 people enrolled in Belgium’s Flemish Gut Flora Project. The team then correlated different microbial taxa with the participants’ quality of life and incidence of depression, using self-reported and physician-supplied diagnoses. The researchers validated the findings in an independent cohort of 1,063 individuals in the Netherlands’ LifeLines DEEP project. Finally, they mined the data to generate a catalogue describing the microbiota’s capacity to produce or degrade molecules that can interact with the human nervous system.

The researchers found that two groups of bacteria, Coprococcus and Dialister, were reduced in people with depression. And they saw a positive correlation between quality of life and the potential ability of the gut microbiome to synthesize a breakdown product of the neurotransmitter dopamine, called 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid. The results are some of the strongest yet to show that a person’s microbiota can influence their mental health.

These are still correlations, not causes. Researchers know that the gut microbiota can produce or stimulate the production of neurotransmitters and neuroactive compounds, such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine, and that these compounds can modulate bacterial growth. The challenge now is to find out whether, and how, these microbe-derived molecules can interact with the human central nervous system, and whether that alters a person’s behaviour or risk of disease. At least now, answering these questions is a wise pursuit, not a wild one.

«

We’re only just starting to understand our inner space. Our understanding of our microbiota (microbes in our gut and body) has only really begun this century.
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Uber releases Ludwig, an open source AI ‘toolbox’ built on top of TensorFlow • VentureBeat

Kyle Wiggers:

»

Want to dive earnestly into artificial intelligence (AI) development, but find the programming piece of it intimidating? Not to worry — Uber has your back. The ride-hailing giant has debuted Ludwig, an open source “toolbox” built on top of Google’s TensorFlow framework that allows users to train and test AI models without having to write code.

Uber says Ludwig is the culmination of two years’ worth of work to streamline the deployment of AI systems in applied projects and says it has been tapping the tool suite internally for tasks like extracting information from driver licenses, identifying points of interest during conversations between driver-partners and riders, predicting food delivery times, and more.

“Ludwig is unique in its ability to help make deep learning easier to understand for non-experts and enable faster model improvement iteration cycles for experienced machine learning developers and researchers alike,” Uber wrote in a blog post. “By using Ludwig, experts and researchers can simplify the prototyping process and streamline data processing so that they can focus on developing deep learning architectures rather than data wrangling.”

«

You have to want to dive earnestly, because it’s not just “here’s some pictures, this is what they are, off you go”.
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‘Link to the rest’: the 12-year journey to 1,000 days of @TheOverspill links • Medium

I wrote about this.. can I call it a journey?

»

When I first started at a national newspaper in 1995, the aim was to write one well-sourced and researched story in a day. This was entirely for print, in a world before people had dialup internet on their desk, let alone high-speed broadband in their pocket. (At least they had mobile phones. You have no idea how difficult it used to be to get hold of people before mobile phones.)

Within five years, everyone had broadband on their desk, and now there was a lot more information coming in, and a lot more places to look. One of the moments I recall was managing to find the patent filings for the Segway just a few minutes before the deadline for delivering the piece at 5pm, which could then be used to illustrate it. That was January 2001. (Weirdly, that piece isn’t on The Independent’s own site, but is on its Irish sibling paper’s.)

Then everyone had web sites, and there were web sites which simply pulled together lists of things that were on other web sites. Everything became connected.

That also meant that the number of stories you could potentially write in a day — check and research for yourself, write, publish — went up dramatically. From picking one story a day for print, suddenly you could write three per day, having picked from 10 potential ones, because the checking process was easier.

«

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Councils given new powers to block phone boxes being built • Daily Telegraph

Katie Morley:

»

Councils will be able to block the building of new phone boxes following a landmark ruling from the High Court.

Westminster council was yesterday granted new powers to stop its pavements becoming swamped with hundreds of phone boxes, which it claims are being used for “nefarious purposes” like drug dealing and prostitution.

Until now installing phone boxes has not required planning permission, but now that will change giving council bosses the ability to stop them being built.

Judges agreed that phone boxes primary function is now not for people making phone calls, but companies beaming out adverts day and night.  

Westminster City Council cabinet member for place shaping and planning, Richard Beddoe said: “”Many phone boxes are in a state of disrepair and we suspect are being used for nefarious purposes. Most people haven’t used a phone box in the last twenty years. We don’t need them any more.”

«

So much for the BT/InLink plan, which was for sort-of internet phone boxes, which were instead used by drug dealers.

(I rewrote the intro/lede, which originally read: “New phone boxes will be blocked from being built by councils for first time, following a landmark ruling from the High Court.” The sentence is backward; it implies the councils build the phone boxes (they don’t, they give them permits), it’s passive (“will be blocked by”) rather than active (“councils can block”), and a landmark ruling implies it’s the first time, so that phrase is surplus.)
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💃😂✊: how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat everyone at Twitter in nine tweets • The Guardian

Max Benwell:

»

When it comes to Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress last November, beats every other US politician hands, nose and elbows down. She has built one of the most engaged followings on Capitol Hill in just eight months and was even appointed to teach social media lessons to her colleagues upon her arrival.

How does she do it? I spend my days analyzing data for the Guardian and helping run our social media accounts, so I’m used to digging into numbers and figuring out what gets people going. And more often than not, it’s the less obvious things that reveal what’s really happening.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account (@AOC) has more than 3.1 million followers. It has gained more than 2.6 million of these in the last eight months. Before she won her primary in June, beating a powerful 10-term Democratic incumbent, she only had 446,000 followers.

«

“Only”? That’s an amazing number. But as this piece goes on to point out, in this medium she’s like a fish swimming in water and makes everyone else look like a lumbering landlubber. It actually helps that her policies aren’t centrist, because the (often faux) outrage about them travels far faster and wider than dull tweaked-version-of-previous policies.
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Your smart light can tell Amazon and Google when you go to bed • Bloomberg

Matt Day:

»

For several years, Amazon and Google have collected data every time someone used a smart speaker to turn on a light or lock a door. Now they’re asking smart-home gadget makers such as Logitech and Hunter Fan Co. to send a continuous stream of information.

In other words, after you connect a light fixture to Alexa, Amazon wants to know every time the light is turned on or off, regardless of whether you asked Alexa to toggle the switch. Televisions must report the channel they’re set to. Smart locks must keep the company apprised whether or not the front door bolt is engaged.

This information may seem mundane compared with smartphone geolocation software that follows you around or the trove of personal data Facebook Inc. vacuums up based on your activity. But even gadgets as simple as light bulbs could enable tech companies to fill in blanks about their customers and use the data for marketing purposes. Having already amassed a digital record of activity in public spaces, critics say, tech companies are now bent on establishing a beachhead in the home.

“You can learn the behaviors of a household based on their patterns,” says Brad Russell, who tracks smart home products for researcher Parks Associates Inc. “One of the most foundational things is occupancy. There’s a lot they could do with that.”

Some device makers are pushing back, saying automatic device updates don’t give users enough control over what data they share, or how it can be used. Public guidelines published by Amazon and Google don’t appear to set limits on what the companies can do with the information they glean about how people use appliances.

Amazon and Google say they collect the data to make it easier for people to manage their home electronics…

…When smart speakers first hit the market, using them to command another device worked like this. After receiving the command “Alexa, turn on the light,” the software would ask the light bulb maker’s servers for the current status of the bulb. After a reply came back confirming the switch was off, Alexa would instruct the light to turn on.

Now, in a push that accelerated last year, Amazon and Google are recommending—and, in some cases, requiring—that smart home makers tweak their code to reverse that relationship. Instead, the light bulb must report in to the hub with its status at all times.

«

That could quickly get messy if your home has lots of devices, and it feels eminently hackable. Also: were you wondering why Amazon might want to buy a company that routes all your home data? Now you know.
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Apple fails to block porn and gambling “enterprise” apps • Techcrunch

Josh Constine:

»

Developers simply have to fill out an online form and pay $299 to Apple, as detailed in this guide from Calvium. The form merely asks developers to pledge they’re building an Enterprise Certificate app for internal employee-only use, that they have the legal authority to register the business, provide a D-U-N-S business ID number, and have an up to date Mac. You can easily Google a business’ address details and look up their D-U-N-S ID number with a tool Apple provides. After setting up an Apple ID and agreeing to its terms of service, businesses wait one to four weeks for a phone call from Apple asking them to reconfirm they’ll only distribute apps internally and are authorized to represent their business.

With just a few lies on the phone and web plus some Googleable public information, sketchy developers can get approved for an Apple Enterprise Certificate.

Given the number of policy-violating apps that are being distributed to non-employees using registrations for businesses unrelated to their apps, it’s clear that Apple needs to tighten the oversight on the Enterprise Certificate program. TechCrunch found thousands of sites offering downloads of “sideloaded” Enterprise apps, and investigating just a sample uncovered numerous abuses.  Using a standard un-jailbroken iPhone. TechCrunch was able to download and verify 12 pornography and 12 real-money gambling apps over the past week that were abusing Apple’s Enterprise Certificate system to offer apps prohibited from the App Store. These apps either offered streaming or pay-per-view hardcore pornography, or allowed users to deposit, win, and withdraw real money — all of which would be prohibited if the apps were distributed through the App Store.

«

Terrific journalism. Apple suddenly finds it has an Augean stable.
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Announcing Extra Crunch • Techcrunch

Matthew Panzarino,
Danny Crichton and
Eric Eldon:

»

I won’t bury the lede. TechCrunch is launching a subscription product called, appropriately and deliciously, Extra Crunch.

Extra Crunch, as it says on the tin, is an additional layer of content, coverage, product and events-based offerings for our most regular and engaged readers. This will consist of articles that go more in-depth on topics in the entrepreneurship and startup universe, of course.

In addition to cutting closer to the bone on the topics we already cover on a daily basis, we’ll be tackling a lot of the practical nuts and bolts issues that confront founders, entrepreneurs, analysts and tech workers — from issues like inclusion and diversity to navigating hiring, legal and product decisions to mental health and wellness in high-performance environments. We want to gather the expertise and knowledge of the founders that have come before and those that are in the thick of it now.

«

$15 per month or $150 per year. (So a 17% discount if you buy annually.) The challenge is always going to be: how do you decide what to put inside the pay perimeter, and what outside? That juicy news story – shouldn’t it be inside, so people pony up to read? Or outside, to get traffic and maybe get business at the margin?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,001: Mars One hits zero, automate Google Docs!, Saudi patriarchy app under fire, boo to blitzscaling, and more


Mm, tasty! Must be why Amazon snapped up mesh startup eero. CC-licensed photo by Alan Levine 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 12 links for you. Really millennium bug-proof, eh? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon buys mesh WiFi startup Eero to connect smart homes • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

»

Amazon is still busy snapping up companies to bolster its smart home business. This time it’s acquiring Eero, the startup that has developed a solid reputation for its mesh WiFi routers. There’s no mystery as to why it’s making the move — it likes the thought of an easy-setup WiFi system that can connect all the smart devices in your household, even in remote corners.

“We are incredibly impressed with the eero team and how quickly they invented a WiFi solution that makes connected devices just work,” Amazon’s Dave Limp said.

The company hasn’t said how much it will pay for the deal or when it will close.

While it’s too soon to say exactly what Amazon has planned for Eero, it’s easy to see how the acquisition could help its bottom line. There’s now a vast range of Alexa-aware devices that need reliable internet connections to work properly. Ring’s doorbells and sensors could also benefit, as could Amazon’s streaming services and Fire TV devices. With Eero, Amazon could become a one-stop shop that supplies both smart home gadgets and the routers you need to get them online.

«

Wonder if this makes it more or less likely that eero will come to the UK. Also, one reader tells me that Ring-branded equipment is being sold off in corporate auctions: maybe there’s an Amazon rebrand (Echo Video?) on the way. I wonder if eero will also get rebranded.

Also: a missed opportunity for Apple.
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Mars One is dead • Engadget

Daniel Cooper:

»

The company that aimed to put humanity on the red planet has met an unfortunate, but wholly-expected end. Mars One Ventures, the for-profit arm of the Mars One mission was declared bankrupt back in January, but wasn’t reported until a keen-eyed Redditor found the listing. It was the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, previously the founder of green energy company Ampyx Power. Lansdorp’s aim was to start a company that could colonize one of our nearest neighbors.

Mars One was split into two ventures, the non-profit Mars One Foundation and the for-profit Mars One Ventures. The Swiss-based Ventures AG was declared bankrupt by a Basel court on January 15th and was, at the time, valued at almost $100 million. Mars One Ventures PLC, the UK-registered branch, is listed as a dormant company with less than £20,000 in its accounts.

«

Oh well, have to make do tidying up here rather than messing up there.
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Google Docs gets an API for task automation | TechCrunch

»

Google today announced the general availability of a new API for Google Docs that will allow developers to automate many of the tasks that users typically do manually in the company’s online office suite. The API has been in developer preview since last April’s Google Cloud Next 2018 and is now available to all developers.

As Google notes, the REST API was designed to help developers build workflow automation services for their users, build content management services and create documents in bulk.

Using the API, developers can also set up processes that manipulate documents after the fact to update them, and the API also features the ability to insert, delete, move, merge and format text, insert inline images and work with lists, among other things.

The canonical use case here is invoicing, where you need to regularly create similar documents with ever-changing order numbers and line items based on information from third-party systems (or maybe even just a Google Sheet). Google also notes that the API’s import/export abilities allow you to use Docs for internal content management systems.

«

That has been a long time coming. It’s quite Javascript-y, and needs a special download and so has to be run from a specific machine (including servers).
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China’s demographic danger grows as births fall far below forecast • WSJ

»

Chinese leaders in 2016 scrapped the decades-old one-child policy after economists warned it was creating a demographic time bomb for China, contributing to a shrinking workforce and a rapidly aging population.

New data show the reversal isn’t having the anticipated impact. The number of newborns in China dropped to 15.23 million in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That’s two million less than 2017 and 30% below the median official forecast of more than 21 million.

It was also the lowest level of births since 1961, when millions were struggling to survive during China’s Great Famine. Newborns eventually become workers, making them essential to economic growth in the long run.

“The demographic outlook does appear to be deteriorating faster than officials had expected,” analysts at Capital Economics wrote in a recent research note.

That’s making it harder for officials to lower taxes much to stimulate growth, since doing so could make it tougher to shore up underfunded pension programs. It’s also making it harder to encourage consumers to boost spending, as more people worry over health and retirement costs.

The demographic outlook is fueling fears China could grow old before it gets rich, leaving it with too few workers to cover the cost of its aging population. That could stoke economic troubles that far outlast turbulence from trade battles this year.

«

China’s median age is about to cross over the US’s (at 38 years old) and start catching up with Japan’s 48 years old. The proportion over 65 compared to those of working age is forecast to pass the US in 2040, though still be behind Japan.
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Apple iPhone sales in China fell by a fifth in fourth quarter, says IDC • Reuters

Brenda Goh, Sonam Rai and Sankalp Phartiyal:

»

Apple no longer breaks out detailed numbers on iPhone shipments in its quarterly results, meaning that surveys and channel checks by the likes of IDC are often the clearest indicator of shifts in sales.

The figures in the report showed a 19.9% fall in Apple’s smartphone shipments in the final quarter of 2018, while Huawei’s grew 23.3%. That reduced Apple’s market share to 11.5% from 12.9% a year earlier, the report said.

“Besides regular performance upgrades in 2018 and small changes to the exterior, there has not been any major innovation that supports users to continue to change their phones at the greatly increased price,” the report said.

“The severe macro environment in China and the assault of domestic brands’ innovative products have also been reasons for Apple’s continued decline.”

A separate report from another common industry source, Hong Kong-based Counterpoint, earlier this month confirmed a similar sharp fall in sales in India – another big emerging market where Apple is struggling.

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YouTube attempts to tame self-created conspiracy monster • NY Mag

Madison Malone Kircher:

»

David Hogg… survived the Parkland school shooting that left 17 of his classmates and teachers dead, only to have to endure viral videos peddling a conspiracy that he was not a high schooler, but rather a paid crisis actor. Following the shooting, the video of Hogg spiked to the No. 1 trending spot on YouTube before the platform finally took it down. A different video from the same user purporting to show Hogg “forgetting his lines” was left up even after the other video was removed by YouTube. (It has since also been deleted.) This week, Valentine’s Day will mark one year since the Parkland shooting.

[Former YouTube engineer Guillaume] Chaslot wrote [on Twitter] that YouTube has two options when it comes to curbing conspiracy-theory videos: that “people spend more time on round earth videos” or that the company “change the AI.” “YouTube’s economic incentive is for solution 1,” he continued. “After 13 years, YouTube made the historic choice to go towards 2.”

It feels like we’re giving YouTube way too much credit here [for downplaying conspiracy videos]. YouTube didn’t have to give Alex Jones, a man who claims the shooting at Sandy Hook didn’t happen, a platform for as long as it did. (YouTube finally banned Jones in August 2018.) Just like (before January) it didn’t have to let people continue posting scientifically debunked schlock about how vaccines cause autism just because those videos technically weren’t violating the rules. The company isn’t going with option two at great cost to its bottom line. The company is going with option two because the cost of people calling it out for going with option one for so long is becoming untenable.

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Apple, Google criticised for Saudi Absher app that tracks women • INSIDER

Bill Bostock:

»

Apple and Google have been accused of helping to “enforce gender apartheid” in Saudi Arabia, by offering a sinister app which allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country.

Both Google Play and iTunes host Absher, a government web service which allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.

Absher also has benign functions — like paying parking fines — but its travel features have been identified by activists and refugees as a major factor in the continued difficulty women have leaving Saudi Arabia.

Neither Apple nor Google responded to repeated requests for comment from INSIDER over several days prior to publication.

INSIDER reported on the existence of Absher last week, along with the story of Shahad al-Mohaimeed, a Saudi teen refugee who evaded the system to claim asylum in Sweden.

«

Bets on whether this will be removed? It’s a bit like Find My Friends (which we call Stalk My Family), but with added patriarchy: insert woman’s passport number, number of journeys she can make, and a place where they can cancel her permission to travel. It’s had more than a million downloads.

But what app store rule(s) does it break?
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The fundamental problem with Silicon Valley’s favorite growth strategy • Quartz

Tim O’Reilly:

»

Hoffman recalls his own success with the “blitzscaling” philosophy during the early days of Paypal. Back in 2000, the company was growing 5% per day, letting people settle their charges using credit cards while using the service for free. This left the company to absorb, ruinously, the 3% credit card charge on each transaction. He writes:

“I remember telling my old college friend and Paypal co-founder/CEO Peter Thiel, ‘Peter, if you and I were standing on the roof of our office and throwing stacks of hundred-dollar bills off the edge as fast as our arms could go, we still wouldn’t be losing money as quickly as we are right now.’”

But it worked out. Paypal built an enormous user base quickly, giving the company enough market power to charge businesses to accept Paypal payments. They also persuaded most customers to make those payments via direct bank transfers, which have much lower fees than credit cards. If they’d waited to figure out the business model, someone else might have beat them to the customer that made them a success: eBay, which went on to buy Paypal for $1.5 billion (which everyone thought was a lot of money in those days), launching Thiel and Hoffman on their storied careers as serial entrepreneurs and investors.

Of course, for every company like Paypal that pulled off that feat of hypergrowth without knowing where the money would come from, there is a dotcom graveyard of hundreds or thousands of companies that never figured it out. That’s the “risks potentially disastrous defeat” part of the strategy that Hoffman and Yeh talk about. A strong case can be made that blitzscaling isn’t really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy.

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Apple ‘black site’ gives contractors few perks, little security • Bloomberg

Joshua Brustein:

»

Apex is one tiny part of a sprawling global network of staffing firms working with Apple; it is not even the only firm staffing the facility at Hammerwood Avenue. For Apple Maps alone, workers are spread across several locations in Silicon Valley, as well as in Austin, Texas; London; the Czech Republic; and India, according to people who worked on the project. The operation involves thousands of contractors. At Hammerwood, the population has exceeded 250 at times, although the number fluctuates and Apple declined to give a current count.

Places like Hammerwood undermine the mythology of Silicon Valley as a kind of industrial utopia where talented people work themselves to the bone in exchange for outsize salaries and stock options. A common perception in the Bay Area is that its only serious tech-labor issue is the high cost of living driven by the industry’s obscene salaries. But many of those poorer residents work in tech, too. For decades, contractors and other contingent workers have served meals, driven buses, and cleaned toilets at tech campuses. They’ve also built circuit boards and written and tested software, all in exchange for hourly wages and little or no job security.

In different forms, temporary labor as an alternative to full-time employment has grown across the U.S. economy. Companies in many industries now use staffing firms to handle work once done by full-time workers. The technology industry offers one of the starkest examples of how the groups’ fortunes have diverged. While companies aren’t required to disclose the sizes of their contingent workforces, there’s ample evidence that tech companies use large numbers of contractors and temps. Last year, Bloomberg News reported that direct employees at Alphabet Inc.’s Google accounted for less than half its workforce. 

«

Back in 2012, Alexis Madrigal was let inside one of the places where Google updates Google Maps. “It has all the free food, ping pong, and Google Maps-inspired Christoph Niemann cartoons that you’d expect, but it’s still a low-slung office building just off the 101 in Mountain View in the burbs,” he wrote. Wonder if he just didn’t see the bits where they queued for the toilets, and so on. Clever PR.
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Yeah, Apple is probably building a modem • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg:

»

the fact that the modem team is just now moving likely means that their modem effort is still fairly nascent. There is a lot of work to be done here, especially in building out support for older wireless standards. Any modem today has to support all the existing cellular standards going back to 2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE. That is a time-consuming process. Moreover, to be competitive, Apple’s modem will have to build 5G capabilities. If they are starting from scratch, it is hard to see them finishing all of that in less than a year, even at an incredible sprint. Admittedly, Apple is always full of surprises, so they probably have some clever shortcut that escapes us mere mortals, but even still, it is pretty unlikely that next year’s (2020) iPhone would have an Apple modem.

Second, this is bad news for Intel who is currently the sole source supplier for iPhone modems. Apple has been long rumored to be working on its own laptop CPU to replace Intel, and now it seems Apple is also designing out the Intel modem. We suspect that Intel will still provide something to Apple’s modem, perhaps some form of IP license or sale of software libraries to speed up the development. There is also an outside chance that Apple just buys Intel’s modem team. We have no idea if this is happening, but it would certainly speed up the hiring for Apple’s modem team.

Third, there is a possibility that this is an Apple head fake of some sort. Why did this story leak now and who leaked it? Reuters only cites “two people familiar with the move”. This does not sound like an Apple employee. The author, Stephen Nellis, covers Apple and Qualcomm, and seems to have a pretty broad contact network. So one scenario is that Apple directly leaked this story, probably as a way of ratcheting up the pressure on Qualcomm, any means necessary for World War Patents. Another scenario is that Apple’s modem team has gotten big enough that keeping it secret is just not possible anymore.

«

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Airpods 2 with grip coating, and AirPower, said to launch this spring • Macrumors

Tim Hardwick:

»

Rumor site MySmartPrice said one of its “trusted sources” claims the AirPods 2, tipped for release this year, will offer better bass response thanks to improved internals, and both the earbuds and case will include a special matte coating to enhance grip, similar to a coating used on the glass back of Google’s Pixel 3 phone.

The report also repeats previous rumors suggesting Apple’s second-generation AirPods will feature health monitoring features, including heart-rate monitoring, and claims that battery life is likely to be more or less similar to the current model.

In addition, the site believes the new AirPods 2 earphones will be available in black and white colors and cost around $200, a $40 increase on the current price, although whether this detail comes from the same source or just speculation is unclear.

The site’s source offers no concrete launch window for the AirPods 2, however in a separate report this morning, DigiTimes reiterated previous rumors from its supply chain sources that Apple will release new-generation AirPods in the first half of this year. Apple supplier Inventec is a major assembler of AirPods and expects its shipments to grow further as a result of the launch, which has also been tipped for early 2019 by well-connected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

Meanwhile, MySmartPrice claims Apple’s AirPower wireless charging pad will be thicker than originally planned due to an internal 8-7-7 coil configuration, and will finally be released in Spring this year, “alongside the wireless charging case for the first-generation AirPods.” Apple is expected to release a standalone AirPods case that can be purchased as an upgrade for existing AirPods to enable wireless charging.

«

If correct, that separates heartrate monitoring from the Watch, which would imply Apple foresees broader benefits from the health space. Even in the UK, the number of people you see wearing them is surprising: it’s a bit like when the iPod became a sleeper hit almost overnight in 2003.
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Exclusive: undercover spy exposed in NYC was one of many • Associated Press

Raphael Satter on attempts by the mysterious NSO Group, whose software was used to hack activists’ phones in Mexico, to entrap those suing it:

»

Who hired the undercover agents remains unclear, but their operational and digital fingerprints suggest they are linked.

The six operatives all began approaching their targets around the same time with individually tailored pitches. Their bogus websites followed the same patterns; all of them were hosted on Namecheap and many were bought at auction from GoDaddy and used the Israeli web design platform Wix. The formatting of the websites was similar; in at least two instances — MGP and Lyndon Partners — it was identical. Even the operatives’ email signatures were the same — consisting of three neatly packed, colorful lines consisting of a phone number, web address and email.

The operatives’ LinkedIn pages were similar, too, featuring men in sunglasses shot from a distance, facing away from the camera, or at unusual angles — a tactic sometimes use to frustrate facial recognition algorithms.

Despite the indications that the undercover agents are all linked, there is no conclusive evidence who they might work for. An Israeli television channel, Channel 12, broadcast a report on Saturday claiming that an Israeli private investigation firm, Black Cube, had been investigating issues around the lawsuits against NSO. The TV channel showed secretly shot footage of the Cypriot lawyer, Markou, and the London journalist, Hamid, which matched the pair’s description of their encounters with undercover agents.

«

Lying to people about who you’re working for is much harder now if they intend to check you. Does the company exist? How long has the website existed? Why are the photos odd? All this has changed spycraft dramatically.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,000: Insect armageddon, the Facebook factchecking fallacy, Apple bans the screen recorders, the (non-)War of the Worlds, and more

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Yes, we have done 999 previously. Thanks Euan Williamson for the GIF.

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. Survived my personal Millennium Bug, but will the bugs? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’ • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

Insect population collapses have recently been reported in Germany and Puerto Rico, but the review strongly indicates the crisis is global. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write.

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Intensive agriculture and pesticides mainly blamed. But climate change too.

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Young people who play video games have higher moral reasoning skills • inews.co.uk

Rhiannon Williams:

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Researchers from Bournemouth University asked 166 adolescents aged between 11 and 18-years old about their video game habits and questions designed to measure their moral development – the thought process behind determining what is right or wrong.

The children and teenagers who said they played more video games from a wide variety of genres had increased moral reasoning scores, including titles containing violent content.

Violent games were found to have a positive relationship with moral reasoning while mature content was more likely to produce a negative one, the report published in published in journal Frontiers in Psychology found.

The Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty franchises were highlighted as examples of titles related to lower moral scores, alongside variables including the length of time spent playing games, how many years they’ve been playing games, the level of engagement and m0ral narrative within a game.

Male participants displayed significantly higher moral reasoning scores than their female counterparts, which contradicted previous findings, the researchers claimed. Girls also experienced higher levels of stress while playing…

…The study suggested several explanations for the higher moral scores, including that developed moral reasoning could be supported by higher proficiency at morally disengaging with the subject, e.g. the ability to view the game as ‘just a game’.

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Fact-checking Facebook was like playing a doomed game of whack-a-mole • Buzzfeed News

Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of the Snopes.com fact-checking site:

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It was clear from the start that that this list was generated via algorithm. It contained headlines and URLs, and a graph showing their popularity and how much time they had been on the site. There were puzzling aspects to it, though. We would often get the same story over and over again from different sites, which is to be expected to a certain degree because many of the most lingering stories have been recycled again and again. This is what Facebook likes to call “engagement.”

But no matter how many times we marked them “false,” stories would keep resurfacing with nothing more than a word or two changed. This happened often enough to make it clear that our efforts weren’t really helping, and that we were being directed toward a certain type of story — and, we presumed, away from others.

What were the algorithmic criteria that generated the lists of articles for us to check? We never knew, and no one ever told us.

There was a pattern to these repeat stories though: they were almost all “junk” news, not the highly corrosive stuff that should have taken priority. We’d be asked to check if a story about a woman who was arrested for leaving her children in the car for hours while she ate at a buffet was true; meanwhile a flood of anti-semitic false George Soros stories never showed up on the list. I could never figure it out why, but perhaps it was a feature, not a bug.

And here we are today, with Snopes and the Associated Press pulling out of their partnerships within days of each other. It doesn’t surprise me to see this falling apart, because it was never a sufficient solution to a crisis that still poses a real threat to our world.

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Not only that: Binkowski spotted the Myanmar disinformation scheme being spread on Facebook long before it hit the broader news, took it to Facebook… nothing. Perversely, she felt responsible for that failure. Now, if you’re wondering how people fall for conspiracy stuff…
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SOtM sNH-10G Network Switch Review – Reviews • Audiophile Style

“KenRW” is reviewing a network switch – an Ethernet switch – aimed at audiophiles, and has a Q+A with the manufacturer:

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Q : When was the development started and completed?
A : It was started at the end of 2017 and completed around Sep of  2018.
 
Q : How was it invented? Even though there are many routers and switches already available?
A : Because we’ve experienced sound quality differences by the different network devices but there was nothing to fulfill the quality of sound, so we started development for audio equipment. 
 
Q : What is the benefit of using sNH-10G into the system?
A : As for the audio equipment, the most important factor is sound quality. Also it has the optical ports and LED on/off feature.
 
Q :What is the technical background of sNH-10G?
A : All SOtM products have their own unique technical points. The sNH-10G is for the network audio device, every LAN port has filtering technology, which improves sound quality dramatically and this filtering technology has also been applied to the iSO-CAT6. 

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$800 for an 8-port switch. With a “specially designed Ethernet noise filter”. Oh lord. Google can filter out conspiracy videos, but this is a whole different genre altogether: the irredeemably gullible. (Via Adewale Adetugbo; see the thread by Wesley George.)
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Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds panic myth: the infamous radio broadcast did not cause nationwide hysteria • Slate

Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow:

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How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”

The contrast between how newspaper journalists experienced the supposed panic, and what they reported, could be stark. In 1954, Ben Gross, the New York Daily News’ radio editor, published a memoir in which he recalled the streets of Manhattan being deserted as his taxi sped to CBS headquarters just as War of the Worlds was ending. Yet that observation failed to stop the Daily News from splashing the panic story across a legendary cover a few hours later.

From these initial newspaper items on Oct. 31, 1938, the apocryphal apocalypse only grew in the retelling. A curious (but predictable) phenomenon occurred: As the show receded in time and became more infamous, more and more people claimed to have heard it. As weeks, months, and years passed, the audience’s size swelled to such an extent that you might actually believe most of America was tuned to CBS that night. But that was hardly the case.

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See also: the number of people at the Sex Pistols’ first gig, and the number when Bob Dylan went electric and someone shouted “Judas!”
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I blocked Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill:

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I am using a Linux laptop made by a company named Purism and a Nokia feature phone on which I am relearning the lost art of T9 texting…

…in preparation for the week, I export all my contacts from Google, which amounts to a shocking 8,000 people. I have also whittled down the over 1,500 contacts in my iPhone to 143 people for my Nokia, or the number of people I actually talk to on a regular basis, which is incredibly close to Dunbar’s number.

I wind up placing a lot of phone calls this week, because texting is so annoying on the Nokia’s numbers-based keyboard. I find people often pick up on the first ring out of concern; they’re not used to getting calls from me.

I don’t think I could have done this cold turkey.
On the first day of the block, I drive to work in silence because my rented Ford Fusion’s “SYNC” entertainment system is powered by Microsoft. Background noise in general disappears this week because YouTube, Apple Music, and our Echo are all banned—as are Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu, because they rely on AWS and the Google Cloud to get their content to users.

The silence causes my mind to wander more than usual. Sometimes this leads to ideas for my half-finished zombie novel or inspires a new question for investigation. But more often than not, I dwell on things I need to do.

Many of these things are a lot more challenging as a result of the experiment, such as when I record an interview with Alex Goldman of the podcast Reply All about Facebook and its privacy problems.

I live in California, and Alex is in New York; we would normally use Skype, but that’s owned by Microsoft, so instead we talk by phone and I record my end with a handheld Zoom recorder. That works fine, but when it comes time to send the 386 MB audio file to Alex, I realize I have no idea how to send a huge file over the internet.

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So essentially like living in 1995. Take it from a survivor: we managed. (OK, there weren’t Linux laptops. But Windows and MacOS at the time were pretty much the same as Linux is now.)
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Let there be light switches • Reading Design

Dan Hill:

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A light switch can stick around for decades, as with the doorhandle. When you touch the switch, you are subconsciously sensing the presence of others who have done so before you, and all those yet to do so. You are also directly touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker fibres of cables, like limbs wrapped around each other, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.

In his book Being Ecological, it’s telling that Timothy Morton selects the light switch to explain Heidegger’s notions of vorhanden and zuhanden. He relates the condition of being jetlagged in a Norwegian hotel room, when “the light switch seems a little closer than normal, a little differently placed on the wall”…

The light switch when jetlagged is vorhanden — suddenly present-at-hand, “oppressively obvious” —where usually its everyday resilience means it is zuhanden, simply ready-at-hand, normalised, routine. When “stumbling around”, he notes that we don’t pay attention to the object itself — here, the irreducible thing that is the light switch —and so nor do we stand any chance of paying attention to the broader systems of living, of infrastructure, that it is connected to, and part of – and, for Morton, our understanding of mass extinction due to climate change.

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Bet you didn’t expect to arrive there when you started that extract.
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Apple tells app developers to disclose or remove screen recording code • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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In an email, an Apple spokesperson said: “Protecting user privacy is paramount in the Apple ecosystem. Our App Store Review Guidelines require that apps request explicit user consent and provide a clear visual indication when recording, logging, or otherwise making a record of user activity.”

“We have notified the developers that are in violation of these strict privacy terms and guidelines, and will take immediate action if necessary,” the spokesperson added.

It follows an investigation by TechCrunch that revealed major companies, like Expedia, Hollister and Hotels.com, were using a third-party analytics tool to record every tap and swipe inside the app. We found that none of the apps we tested asked the user for permission, and none of the companies said in their privacy policies that they were recording a user’s app activity.

Even though sensitive data is supposed to be masked, some data — like passport numbers and credit card numbers — was leaking.

Glassbox is a cross-platform analytics tool that specializes in session replay technology. It allows companies to integrate its screen recording technology into their apps to replay how a user interacts with the apps. Glassbox says it provides the technology, among many reasons, to help reduce app error rates. But the company “doesn’t enforce its customers” to mention that they use Glassbox’s screen recording tools in their privacy policies.

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Whittaker has been on a tear with these stories.
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The exercise “recovery” industry is largely bogus • Vox

Julia Belluz:

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When health journalist Christie Aschwanden was traveling the world as a competitive ski racer in the 1990s and 2000s, recovery between training sessions basically meant doing nothing — taking a day to sleep in or lie around with a good book.

About a decade ago, she noticed something had changed: recovery became a thing athletes actively performed — with foam rollers, cryotherapy, or cupping — as part of their training routines. These recovery tools were heavily marketed to athletes, including amateur ones, as a means to boost performance and bust muscle aches.

In a new book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, Aschwanden walks through all the biggest recovery fads of the past decade — and exposes the shoddy science backing most of them.

It’s an intelligent and entertaining tour of fitness research for anyone who exercises, with clear advice on what actually works to aid recovery. I won’t give away all the juicy details in the book, but I did ask Aschwanden to walk me through three of the most dubious recovery methods she uncovered. Here’s what she told me.

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Hydration overhyped, cold post-exercise bad, cupping nonsense. Relaxing baths good.
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Sprint sues AT&T over its fake 5G branding • Engadget

Richard Lawler:

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In its claim, Sprint said it commissioned a survey that found 54% of consumers believed the “5GE” networks were the same as or better than 5G, and that 43% think if they buy an AT&T phone today it will be 5G capable, even though neither of those things are true. Sprint’s argument is that what AT&T is doing is damaging the reputation of 5G, while it works to build out what it calls a ” legitimate early entry into the 5G network space.”

Following the announcement of Sprint’s lawsuit, AT&T provided us with the following statement: “We understand why our competitors don’t like what we are doing, but our customers love it. We introduced 5G Evolution more than two years ago, clearly defining it as an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G…”

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A number of Android phones, and Apple in its betas, are showing “5GE” in the menu bar for AT+T on this. I’ve seen suggestions on Twitter that Apple doesn’t have a choice in what it displays; that it comes in the form of an image file from the network. Good for Sprint suing, though – which was the obvious move: none of the handset manufacturers is going to. Totally not in their interest.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: a link to a story about VPNs ascribed to Tech In Asia actually came from Abacus News. You should read it. (It’s not about abacuses.)

Start Up No.999: Facebook’s German data hiccup, ads and robot anxiety, Twitter’s user truth, webcam insecurity, and more


The US has a lot of crumbling infrastructure. (This was a Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007.) CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster 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. And then you’ll start at No.1,000.

A selection of 11 links for you. Which service do you require? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The infrastructural humiliation of America • TechCrunch

Jon Evans:

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The USA is nine times wealthier than Thailand, per capita, but I’d far rather ride Bangkok’s SkyTrain than deal with NYC’s subway nowadays. I’d much prefer to fly into Don Muang, Bangkok’s ancient second-tier airport — which was actually closed for years, before being reopened to handle domestic flights and low-cost airlines — than the hostile nightmare that is LAX. And those are America’s two primary gateway cities!

So imagine what it’s like coming to America from wealthy Asian nations, and their gleaming, polished, metronomically reliable subways, trains, and airports. I don’t think Americans understand just how that comparison has become a quiet ongoing national humiliation. If they did, sheer national (and civic) pride would make them want to do something about it. Instead there’s a learned helplessness about most American infrastructure nowadays, a wrong but certain belief that it’s unrealistic to dream of anything better.

It’s not just those two cities. Compare Boston’s T to, say, Taipei, or San Francisco’s mishmash of messed-up systems — Muni, where I have waited 45 minutes for a T-Third; CalTrain, which only runs every 90 minutes on weekends; BART, which squandered millions on its useless white-elephant Millbrae station — to Shenzhen. And it’s not just age; Paris’s metro was inaugurated in 1900, but its well-maintained system continues to run excellently and expand continuously.

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Can’t he just get a ride on the tax cuts?
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Germany blocks Facebook from pooling user data without consent • Financial Times

Olaf Storbeck, Madhumita Murgia and Rochelle Toplensky:

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Germany’s antitrust watchdog on Thursday blocked Facebook from pooling data collected from Instagram, its other subsidiaries and third-party websites without user consent in a landmark decision on internet privacy rights and competition.

The Federal Cartel Office said it was tackling what it described as the Silicon Valley company’s “practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data” to user accounts.

In a press conference in Bonn, the German authorities said that Facebook needed the “voluntary consent” of users to pool data from other services with its own Facebook user data.

The FCO also said that Facebook needed consent to collect data from third-party websites outside its own ecosystem. “If consent is not given . . . Facebook will have to substantially restrict its collection and combination of data,” the cartel office said.

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Note that it’s the antitrust office, not the privacy commissioner doing this. Though one suspects that Facebook will get round it with a dialog box.
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Over 40 smartphone brands exit India market owing to hyper-competition • ET Telecom

Tina Gurnaney:

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As many as 41 smartphone brands exited the India smartphone market in 2018 owing to hyper-competition, while 15 brands entered the market eyeing growth prospects that India has to offer, according to data shared by Cybermedia Research.

Mirroring the same pattern, more exits than entry of smartphone players is expected in 2019 as major brands like Xiaomi, Samsung, Vivo, Oppo continue to consolidate their share by eating into those of the smaller brands, analysts say. Counterpoint Research predicts the exit of 15 smartphone players in 2019 versus entry of five players. CMR sees nine new entrants versus 10 exits in 2019.

As per CMR estimates, India currently has around 200 smartphone players operating in the market. At its peak in 2014-15, the mobile phone market had over 300 smartphone players.

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That was the peak? Yet it’s still the fastest growing (big) market.
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Why so many Super Bowl ads were about robots • Slate

Will Oremus:

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It’s possible that Madison Avenue is just out of touch. But if the ads they cooked up for companies ranging from Michelin to TurboTax to Sprint provide a window into America’s anxieties, it sure seems like we’re struggling to figure out our place alongside machine intelligence. And we’re already resorting to gallows humor in the face of our own obsolescence.

The robot reckoning began with an ad from SimpliSafe, called “Fear Is Everywhere,” that played tech’s dark side for some wry chuckles. “In five years, robots will be able to do your job, your job, and your job” a man tells his friends at a ballgame. The camera pans up to show a robot in a baseball cap on the top bleacher eating a hot dog, who gives a slightly menacing dude-nod. Cut to an electronics store where a woman asks her phone-distracted husband if he’s listening. The reply comes instead from an Amazon Echo–like device on the store shelf: “Always, Denise.”

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/_rnrEQBieIQ

The spot works because it cloaks real fears in satire. It’s at once a sendup of the “scare people into buying a security system” genre and an exemplar of it.

That spooky-funny duality may help to explain why robots are fast becoming a trope in TV advertising. Humor is a way of dealing with topics that make us uncomfortable while maintaining some emotional distance from them. A.I. taking our jobs and listening in on our conversations really is frightening, but it isn’t quite so frightening that we can’t joke about it—like, say, climate change or terrorism. At least, not yet.

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Twitter finally shared how big its daily user base is — and it’s a lot smaller than Snapchat’s • Recode

Kurt Wagner:

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How big is Twitter’s daily user base? A lot smaller than Snapchat’s, it turns out.

For years, Twitter has been asking investors to judge the company by looking at user growth for its daily active users. But Twitter never shared how many daily active users it actually had, which made the year-over-year growth hard to appreciate.

That changed on Thursday when Twitter shared its daily user total for the first time: Twitter has 126 million daily users, which is 60 million fewer users than Snapchat (and a lot fewer users than the core apps owned by Facebook). That means roughly 39% of Twitter’s monthly active users are on the app every day.

The new metric matters to Twitter because it paints a picture that Twitter is growing. Twitter’s monthly active user base — the user metric it has shared quarterly since its IPO in 2013 — is shrinking, and has been for some time. So focusing on DAU instead of MAU lets Twitter show that it’s growing, which is a much happier story to tell. In fact, Twitter said it will stop sharing the MAU total altogether beginning this year.

The DAU metric also helps put Twitter’s user growth, which it’s been touting for years, into perspective. And it helps us compare Twitter’s audience to competitors like Snapchat, which it competes with for advertising dollars.

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Facebook just ticking over on 1,520 million DAUs. And yet: none of the three looks likely to go away.
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What I learned from the hacker who spied on me • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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We’re putting cameras in more and more places, yet more and more people are putting tape over their computer webcams because they fear who may be looking.

How secure are these tiny eyes into our private lives? The bad news is, it was possible for Mr. Heid to get into my Windows 10 laptop’s webcam and, from there, my entire home network. He also eventually cracked my MacBook Air. The good news is that both operating systems were initially able to thwart the hacker. It took me performing some intentionally careless things for him to “succeed.”

If you’re on guard and aware that people are out there trying to trick you to let down your defenses, and you follow some basic practices, you can make it much more difficult for the bad guys to get to you…

…When connected to the Windows laptop, Mr. Heid was able to scan for other devices on my home Wi-Fi network. He quickly found two cameras: a Nest Camera and a Wansview 1080p connected baby monitor that I bought for this column along with the laptops.

From this point on, getting into the baby monitor didn’t even require hacking. He went to its IP address, searched Google for the default username and password and typed it in to the camera’s web portal. He had a nice stream of my son’s playroom—my son included.

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Windows 10: hard-ish to hack. MacBook Air: harder to hack. Android: harder to hack. iPhone: don’t bother. (Yeah yeah FaceTime. Isn’t the same.) Random webcams: cinch, especially if you don’t change the default password – and lots of people don’t.
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Another demonstration of CRS/GDS insecurity • The Practical Nomad blog

Edward Hasbrouck:

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Zack Whittaker had a report yesterday for Techcrunch on the latest rediscovery of a continuing vulnerability affecting sensitive personal data in airline reservations that I first reported, both publicly and to the responsible companies, more than 15 years ago: computerized reservations systems and systems that rely on them for data storage and retrieval, including airline check-in Web sites, use a short, insecure, unchangeable, system-assigned, and fundamentally insecure “record locator” as though it were a secure password to control access to passenger name record (PNR) data.

I wrote about these vulnerabilities and reported them to each of the major CRS/GDS companies in 2001, 2002, and 2003, specifically noting their applicability to airline check-in Web sites (among many other Web services). I pointed these vulnerabilities out in a submission to the US Federal Trade Commission in 2009 which was co-signed by several consumer and privacy organizations, in my 2013 testimony as an invited expert witness before the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in a complaint which was which finally accepted and docketed by the European Commission in 2017, and in my comments to the European Commission in December 2018 with respect to its current review of the European Union’s regulations governing protection of personal data by CRSs.

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Ah, so it’s not a new thing by any means. That makes it a lot worse. (Thanks, Wendy Grossman.)

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The proposed Green New Deal

Put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others; its aims aren’t modest:

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National mobilization of our economy through 14 infrastructure and industrial projects. Every project strives to remove greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from every sector of our economy:

o Build infrastructure to create resiliency against climate change-related disasters
o Repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure. ASCE estimates this is $4.6 trillion at minimum.
o Meet 100% of power demand through clean and renewable energy sources
o Build energy-efficient, distributed smart grids and ensure affordable access to electricity
o Upgrade or replace every building in US for state-of-the-art energy efficiency
o Massively expand clean manufacturing (like solar panel factories, wind turbine factories, battery and storage manufacturing, energy efficient manufacturing components) and remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing
o Work with farmers and ranchers to create a sustainable, pollution and greenhouse gas free, food system that ensures universal access to healthy food and expands independent family farming
o Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle
o Mitigate long-term health effects of climate change and pollution
o Remove greenhouse gases from our atmosphere and pollution through afforestation, preservation, and other methods of restoring our natural ecosystems
o Restore all our damaged and threatened ecosystems
o Clean up all the existing hazardous waste sites and abandoned sites o Identify new emission sources and create solutions to eliminate those emissions
o Make the US the leader in addressing climate change and share our technology, expertise and products with the rest of the world to bring about a global Green New Deal

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Yes, that does say “Upgrade or replace every building in US for state-of-the-art energy efficiency”. It’s a ten-year plan “to mobilise every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War 2.” No exaggeration, that.
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Apple SVPs • All this

Dr Drang:

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Putting the App Store under Phil Schiller [rather than Eddy Cue], which on paper makes no sense for the SVP of marketing, was the solution, for which both Schiller and Tim Cook deserve credit.

I would argue that broadening Jony Ive’s design oversight to include software in addition to hardware was a mistake as big as putting Cue in charge of the App Store. The software side of Apple’s user interfaces—especially on iOS, which isn’t as hardened by long tradition as on the Mac—has become steadily more cryptic under Ive’s control. Some of this is due to Apple’s need to squeeze more functionality into the OS, but Ive hasn’t been up to the task of melding the new functions into the UI in a consistent and discoverable way.

To me, [Angela] Ahrendts’s five years in charge of Retail has been similar to Ive’s time as Chief Design Officer. The Apple Stores look better than ever, but they don’t work as well as they used to. No one I know looks forward to going to an Apple Store, even when it’s for the fun task of buying a new toy. No doubt a lot of this is due to Apple’s success and the mobs of people milling about, but Ahrendts didn’t solve the problem of efficiently handling the increased customer load.

I hope [Ahrendt’s replacement, Deirdre] O’Brien’s background in operations will lead to improvements in the flow of people through the Stores.

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I hadn’t thought about Ive and software; that happened before the release of iOS 7, which he really influenced, and whose minimalism has been dialled back towards, if not maximalism, then sufficientism, over the intervening six years.
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Attacking a paywall that hides public court filings • The New York Times

Adam Liptak:

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By one estimate, the actual cost of retrieving court documents, including secure storage, is about one half of one ten-thousandth of a penny per page. But the federal judiciary charges a dime a page to use its service, called Pacer (for Public Access to Court Electronic Records).

The National Veterans Legal Services Program and two other nonprofit groups filed a class action in 2016 seeking to recover what they said were systemic overcharges. “Excessive Pacer fees inhibit public understanding of the courts and thwart equal access to justice, erecting a financial barrier that many ordinary citizens are unable to clear,” they wrote.

The suit accuses the judicial system of using the fees it charges as a kind of slush fund, spending the money to buy flat-screen televisions for jurors, to finance a study of the Mississippi court system and to send notices in bankruptcy proceedings.

A 2002 law allows — but does not require — the judicial system to charge for access to the records, but “only to the extent necessary” to pay for “services rendered.” The judicial system says the law allows it to charge the current fees and to spend the proceeds on a variety of programs. People seeking free access, the judicial system’s brief said, can visit the courthouse.

Last year, Judge Ellen S. Huvelle of the Federal District Court in Washington accepted the challengers’ basic theory and said the judicial system had misused some of the money.

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There’s a samizdat effort to put any Pacer documents acquired into cloud services such as DocumentCloud so that people don’t have to re-pay to view them. In February 2017, the Internet Archive offered to host the data as Congress’s subcommittee on courts and IP met to discuss Pacer, for the first time in a decade. The US’s behaviour here is out of line with its normal approach to data held by governments, which are paid by the people.
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Amazing illustrations that use negative space brilliantly • Digital Synopsis

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In art, negative space is the background space around the main object of an image. In a two-tone image (eg. black and white), the object is usually depicted in a darker color (black) than the background (white), thereby forming a silhouette. Sometimes, the tones are reversed and white is used to fill the silhouette (refer Coke examples below). When an artist carves out a shape in the silhouette, in a way that the background creates a visual of its own, that’s when the magic happens.

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Very Mad Men, but that doesn’t mean they’re not magical.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.998: bad news on global warming, why Spotify wants podcasts, EU roaming charges loom, hacking your airline ticket, and more


A melting glacier: indicative of global warming. It’s getting worse. CC-licensed photo by Len Radin 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. Not assigned any particular place in hell. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

It’s official: 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record • The New York Times

John Schwartz and Nadja Popovich:

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NASA scientists announced Wednesday that the Earth’s average surface temperature in 2018 was the fourth highest in nearly 140 years of record-keeping and a continuation of an unmistakable warming trend.

The data means that the five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five, and that 18 of the 19 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. The quickly rising temperatures over the past two decades cap a much longer warming trend documented by researchers and correspond with the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activity.

“We’re no longer talking about a situation where global warming is something in the future,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the NASA group that conducted the analysis. “It’s here. It’s now.”

While this planet has seen hotter days in prehistoric times, and colder ones in the modern era, what sets recent warming apart in the sweep of geologic time is the relative suddenness of the rise in temperatures and its clear correlation with increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane produced by human activity over the same period.

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The other day I was reading a depressing article about plastics being all through the marine food chain, and thought: this is the dinosaurs’ revenge. They got turned into oil, and now we burn them and wreck our ecosystem. A slow-motion meteor.
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A hole opens up under Antarctic glacier — big enough to fit two-thirds of Manhattan

Denise Chow:

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The discovery is described in a paper published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances. The researchers expected to see significant loss of ice, but the scale of the void came as a shock.

“The size of the cavity is surprising, and as it melts, it’s causing the glacier to retreat,” said Pietro Milillo, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the paper’s lead author. He said the ice shelf encompassing the Florida-sized glacier is retreating at a rate in excess of 650 feet per year, and that most of the melting that led to the void occurred during the past three years.


Sinking areas at Thwaites Glacier are shown here in red and rising areas in blue. The growing cavity (red mass, center) caused the greatest sinking. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Previous research showed that meltwater from Thwaites accounts for about 4% of the global sea level rise, said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who was not involved with the new study.

If the loss of ice becomes so severe that the glacier collapses — something computer models predict could happen in 50 to 100 years — sea levels would rise by two feet. That’s enough to inundate coastal cities across the globe.

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Worth declaring a state of emergency for the crisis on the US’s south-eastern sea border?
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Instacart changes tip policy after worker backlash • CNN

Sara Ashley O’Brien:

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After mounting criticism from workers over its payment practices, Instacart has agreed to make some changes.

In a blog post on Wednesday, CEO Apoorva Mehta said the on-demand grocery delivery startup will no longer decrease the amount it contributes to worker base pay based on the size of their tips. He also said the company will reimburse workers who have been impacted by that practice.

“While our intention was to increase the guaranteed payment for small orders, we understand that the inclusion of tips as a part of this guarantee was misguided. We apologize for taking this approach,” said Mehta.

Instacart, along with rival DoorDash, has been under fire in recent weeks from workers who say the tips added by customers on orders are being used to subsidize a minimum pay rate, instead of being used as bonuses.

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Meet the new boss class, same as the old boss class.
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Spotify is spending up to $500m on podcast startups including Gimlet, Anchor • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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Not only has Spotify acquired Gimlet Media, a podcast producer and network, for around $230m — a deal Recode told you about last week — but it has also bought Anchor, a startup that makes it easier for people to record and distribute their own podcasts.

The company says it isn’t done — it says it has other podcast acquisitions in mind and that it expects to spend up to $500m on deals this year. Reminder: with these deals, Spotify is now fully in the content creation business, a move it has yet to make with music.

In a blog post up this morning, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says he didn’t plan on getting into podcasting when he founded the company 11 years ago, but he’s in it now. He says Spotify is now the world’s second-biggest podcast platform (behind Apple), and that podcast listening will eventually make up 20% of Spotify’s usage.

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Here’s why. Spotify struggles to be profitable because when playing licensed music, it has to pay a fixed amount per track. Two hours of music listening costs it twice as much, and the subscriber has only paid once. For ad-funded listening, Spotify can play twice as many ads, but they don’t monetise as well as a subscription.

However: if someone listens to one hour, two hours of podcast – there’s no payout. The more time people spend listening to podcasts instead of music, the better Spotify’s margins get. Ideally, people would spend 100% of their time listening to lovely non-royalty-bearing podcasts. So buying podcast companies is an initially expensive method of aligning yourself with “listening” while improving your profitability, long-term.
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Brits will face immediate return of mobile phone roaming charges under No-Deal Brexit, government reveals • HuffPost UK

Paul Waugh:

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A little-noticed government regulation laid before parliament on Tuesday confirms that the UK will revoke the current legislation that allows holidaymakers and business people to use their smartphones in the EU at no extra cost.

The draft ‘statutory instrument’, which has been tabled as part of a raft of no-deal preparations, means that from March 29 phone users will be liable for surcharges when they travel on the continent.

In a note accompanying the secondary legislation – the Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – government admits that consumer groups lobbied hard for a new scheme to maintain the current arrangements.

But “after careful consideration, the government decided not to adopt this proposal”, it states.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) justified its stance by saying that if the current system continued after Brexit, UK phone firms would face “increased costs” from EU carriers that they might then pass on to customers.

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For American readers: charges for UK visitors to the continent used to be a ripoff. Then the EU forced carriers to zero-rate them across the EU. Now the UK’s going to repeal it (probably).
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Advancing research on fake audio detection • Google Blog

Daisy STanton is a software engineer at Google AI:

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we’re keenly aware of the risks this [speech generation] technology can pose if used with the intent to cause harm. Malicious actors may synthesize speech to try to fool voice authentication systems, or they may create forged audio recordings to defame public figures. Perhaps equally concerning, public awareness of “deep fakes” (audio or video clips generated by deep learning models) can be exploited to manipulate trust in media: as it becomes harder to distinguish real from tampered content, bad actors can more credibly claim that authentic data is fake.

We’re taking action. When we launched the Google News Initiative last March, we committed to releasing datasets that would help advance state-of-the-art research on fake audio detection.  Today, we’re delivering on that promise: Google AI and Google News Initiative have partnered to create a body of synthetic speech containing thousands of phrases spoken by our deep learning TTS models. These phrases are drawn from English newspaper articles, and are spoken by 68 synthetic “voices” covering a variety of regional accents.  

We’re making this dataset available to all participants in the independent, externally-run 2019 ASVspoof challenge. This open challenge invites researchers all over the globe to submit countermeasures against fake (or “spoofed”) speech, with the goal of making automatic speaker verification (ASV) systems more secure. By training models on both real and computer-generated speech, ASVspoof participants can develop systems that learn to distinguish between the two. The results will be announced in September at the 2019 Interspeech conference in Graz, Austria.

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Another arms race, or maybe speech (voice?) race.
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Inside Wisconsin’s disastrous $4.5bn deal with Foxconn • Bloomberg

Austin Carr:

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[Foxconn chief Terry] Gou deputized his special assistant, Woo, and another lieutenant, Alan Yeung, Foxconn’s director of US strategic initiatives, to handle the details. They aggressively pursued cash subsidies, calling and texting at all hours. At one point, according to state records released to the public, Woo texted Neitzel at 1:17 a.m., “Give us 200m upfront then it is a done deal.” (Neitzel declined.)

As a bidding war heated up among a handful of states, including Michigan and Ohio, Wisconsin upped its offer. Foxconn demanded subsidies that would make US operations as cheap as in China, and Hogan says Foxconn estimated a 30% cost difference. He acknowledges the subsidy numbers grew “staggering” but says Foxconn won’t get those incentives without delivering the promised numbers of jobs.

Wisconsin’s final bid, written on a single piece of paper, offered as much as $150m in sales tax exemptions and $2.9bn in refundable tax credits on the condition that Foxconn meet certain hiring and capital investment thresholds. Other public costs, including $764m in local incentives from Mount Pleasant and its home county of Racine, made up the other third of the package. When the team slid the paper to Woo in July, Hogan recalls, he folded it up and said, “Terry wants to do business with Governor Walker.”

Even before Foxconn signed the contract in November 2017, Walker’s win began to morph into a political liability. As details of the mostly closed-door negotiations came to light, the narrative soured. At a time when Trump was stoking economic nationalism and ripping on companies that shipped jobs to China, many saw the subsidies as a desperate giveaway to a foreign company with close ties to Beijing…

…“There’s no way this will ever pay itself off,” says Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. He says Foxconn’s incentives are more than 10 times greater than typical government aid packages of its stripe.

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E-ticketing system exposes airline passengers’ personal information via email • Cyberscoop

Jeff Stone:

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At least eight airlines, including Southwest, use e-ticketing systems that could allow hackers to access sensitive information about travelers merely by intercepting emails, according to research published Wednesday by the mobile security company Wandera.

The systems fail to secure customers’ personally identifiable information, including names, boarding passes, passport numbers and flight numbers, Wandera said.

The email vulnerabilities still exist, Wandera found, even though researchers notified affected companies weeks ago, and despite growing corporate awareness about the risks associated with sacrificing security for convenience.

The weakness is a check-in link that is emailed to customers, Wandera researchers found. Customer information is embedded in the links, allowing travelers to travel from their email to a website where they check in for a flight without needing to enter their username and password. However the links are unencrypted and re-usable, presenting a tempting target for hackers, according to Michael Covington, vice president of product at Wandera.

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“Weeks” isn’t enough time to change a system that will be deeply embedded, and airlines aren’t known for having the fastest-moving approach to changing their systems. I’m sure some readers would have more knowledge of this.
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Apple paid its retail head $170M to transform its stores. Did she do it? • Euronews

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Apple’s sleek, minimalist, glass-enshrined stores have long been holy places for Apple diehards, and expanded to 506 retail locations on five continents during Ahrendt’s tenure.

As the former chief executive of Burberry, Ahrendts was expected to be the face of Apple, but instead quietly worked in the background, carefully choosing her media appearances and staying out of the spotlight most of the time at the company’s semi-annual press events.

Ahrendts made her first on-stage appearance at Apple’s annual iPhone event in September 2017, where she called retail Apple’s “largest product” and shared how she envisioned the stores becoming “town squares” with plenty of green space, where people come together to hang out, learn new skills and, oh, buy the new $1,000 iPhone.

In an effort to get people to think of Apple products as part of a lifestyle, Ahrendts also spearheaded free “Today at Apple” courses, which launched in 2017. Apple continues to launch new sessions, including coding classes, software lessons and walking tours, where people can learn how to use the Apple Watch for fitness or how to shoot cinematic photos. Apple said it has held more than 18,000 free sessions since the launch and has reached millions of people.

During her tenure, Ahrendts also introduced more practical shopping functions that customers have come to expect from retailers, including the option to buy online and pick up in-store; and text message alerts, so people don’t have to linger waiting for an appointment at the Genius Bar.

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Hm. The stores were already well-liked (despite former Dixons chief John Browett’s brief, unlamented, efforts). It’s really hard to get any feel for what impact Ahrendts had. If anything, the stores now feel too sparse to me when I look inside them: where is the excitement about new products? The big excited posters? The tables crammed with other extras to buy? They feel more like service centres than shopping destinations, and I don’t think that’s positive.

Her departure feels like she didn’t think she could make further impact. I couldn’t find any better analysis; nobody with contacts at this level will share the insights.
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Hands up who reuses the same password everywhere, even with your Nest. Keep your hand up if you like being spied on by hackers • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

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Nest has urged its customers to not reuse passwords between their smart home gizmos and other websites and services.

This comes after miscreants were spotted taking usernames and passwords leaked or stolen from other websites, and using them to attempt to log into Nest accounts and hijack the internet-connected home gadgets, a type of attack known as credential stuffing.

Rishi Chandra, general manager of the Google-owned smart home outfit, sent an email to all Nest customers on Wednesday noting that the manufacturer had “heard from people experiencing issues with their Nest devices” before running through some security tips to secure their accounts…

…according to Nest, the likelihood is that dirtbags are trying out usernames and passwords dumped online from unrelated website security breaches, to access Nest accounts where credentials have been reused.

“Even though Nest was not breached, customers may be vulnerable because their email addresses and passwords are freely available on the internet,” Chandra’s email warned. “If a website is compromised, it’s possible for someone to gain access to user email addresses and passwords, and from there, gain access to any accounts that use the same login credentials.”

Nest claims to proactively look out for passwords being spilled online, “and when compromised accounts are found, we alert you and temporarily disable access. We also prevent the use of passwords that appear on known compromised lists.”

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As we have said before, Nest allows two-factor authentication, though presently only via SMS (which is weaker than TOTP – timed one-time password – systems such as Authy or Google Authenticator). Odd that a company which is part of Google shouldn’t have TOTP.
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Can Big Tech save its soul? • UnHerd

I wrote a piece over at Unherd:

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As corporate mottos go, “Don’t be evil” is hard to beat. If your company’s ambitions are to change the world, having those little three words in the back of every employee’s mind is sure to lead to good outcomes – isn’t it? That’s why Google adopted it after a meeting about corporate values in 2000 or 2001 (the history is hazy), where it was suggested by Paul Buchheit, who also went on to create Gmail. “Don’t be evil!” Seriously, how hard can that be to follow?

Yet, as the novelist Stephen King points out, nobody considers themselves the “bad guy”. People start with good intentions and then, somehow, bad things happen. That’s what has happened to the lofty goals of the big Silicon Valley companies. They started with a raw-ingredient mix of idealism, social networks, mobile phones and software. And we cooked it into a stew of partisanship, hate, abuse and even murder.

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Of course, you may well ask whether Big Tech had a soul in the first place.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.997: the workforce split, MPs’ Twitter mistake, Apple’s tax payback, Fortnite’s big show, and more


The Onion! From 2007, yet it feels as though it could be from right now. And it can teach machines about satire. CC-licensed photo by Jonathan Harford on Flickr.

What’s been among your favourite Overspill links? Seems for quite a few people in November 2015 was how hypothermia takes you. (You don’t shiver towards the end; you might even tear off your clothes.) There’s also “I wish mum’s phone was never invented” (May 2018). What’s yours?

A selection of 11 links for you. No, it’s referenda. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tech is splitting the US workforce in two • The New York Times

Eduardo Porter:

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Automation is splitting the American labor force into two worlds. There is a small island of highly educated professionals making good wages at corporations like Intel or Boeing, which reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit per employee. That island sits in the middle of a sea of less educated workers who are stuck at businesses like hotels, restaurants and nursing homes that generate much smaller profits per employee and stay viable primarily by keeping wages low.

Even economists are reassessing their belief that technological progress lifts all boats, and are beginning to worry about the new configuration of work.

Recent research has concluded that robots are reducing the demand for workers and weighing down wages, which have been rising more slowly than the productivity of workers. Some economists have concluded that the use of robots explains the decline in the share of national income going into workers’ paychecks over the last three decades.

Because it pushes workers to the less productive parts of the economy, automation also helps explain one of the economy’s thorniest paradoxes: despite the spread of information technology, robots and artificial intelligence breakthroughs, overall productivity growth remains sluggish.

“The view that we should not worry about any of these things and follow technology to wherever it will go is insane,” said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Semiconductor companies like Intel or NXP are among the most successful in the Phoenix area. From 2010 to 2017, the productivity of workers in such firms — a measure of the dollar value of their production — grew by about 2.1% per year, according to an analysis by Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution. Pay is great: $2,790 a week, on average, according to government statistics.

But the industry doesn’t generate that many jobs. In 2017, the semiconductor and related devices industry employed 16,600 people in the Phoenix area, about 10,000 fewer than three decades ago.

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The Onion headlines could teach AI what makes satire funny • Science News

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The researchers compiled a dataset of satirical and serious headlines using the online game Unfun.me, where players edit humorous headlines from the satirical publication The Onion as little as possible to make them serious. These tweaks “put a finger onto the exact switch that induces the humor,” says Robert West, a computer scientist École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. He and coauthor Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., amassed about 2,800 serious versions of nearly 1,200 headlines.

Most of the joke headlines followed a common logical structure, which West and Horvitz call “false analogy.” Words switched between spoof and serious headlines share a crucial similarity, as well as a fundamental difference.

Consider the humorless headline “BP ready to resume oil drilling” and its comedic counterpart “BP ready to resume oil spilling.” Subbing spilling for drilling works because both share the critical commonality of being activities famously associated with BP, but with one being intended and the other accidental. West and Horvitz identified several types of oppositions between words in serious and satirical headlines, such as modern versus outdated, human versus animal and obscene versus not.

These findings could help programmers create AI systems that better understand and have more natural interactions with humans, says Dan Goldwasser, an AI and natural language processing researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., not involved in the analysis.

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The Onion team works by making up headlines, and then writing the stories for it. They also keep a list of headlines that don’t quite make the cut. My favourite of those is “Man knifed with spork”.
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MPs, step away from the social media. Twitter is not your friend • The Guardian

Political journalist Martha Gill:

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Almost all MPs have an account now and some tweet more than 60 times a day. But Twitter is not there to help them. It is there to trip them up. First it lulls them into a false sense of security – rewarding chit chat about their pets or their constituency, welcoming them into an environment where other people (not MPs) are free to tweet unguarded thoughts and opinions – and then, at some unspecified but certain point, it brutally shames them in front of the whole world. Twitter has nothing to lose, and they do.

In the last few days Twitter has claimed the dignity of no fewer than four Conservative MPs…

…Why do MPs go on Twitter at all? Why bother to control your public image – media advisers, training, care in interviews with journalists – and then risk it all by joining this lawless public message board? They can’t really claim it helps them with their jobs: only a narrow demographic slice of their constituents will be on the platform, and in any case few seem to use it for the purposes of engagement – an average 23% of tweets by MPs are direct replies (fewer for cabinet members). Some do seem to be good at it, such as the Labour MP Jess Phillips, but I’m not sure this bolsters their image either: shouldn’t elected representatives have better things to do?

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The details of how the Conservative MPs screwed up is hilarious, though. I have to agree with the first comment below the piece:

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It gives twitter users a chance to see how fatuous and bigoted and ignorant some of these politicians are. In the case of [Tory MP Nadine] Dorries, her twitter feed is an absolute delight. She is almost a parody of herself. In this day and age of course, it matters little that our elected representatives are dim or ill informed.

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Apple agrees to pay back-taxes to French authorities • Reuters

Simon Carraud:

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Apple’s French division said it had reached a deal with France to pay an undeclared amount of back-dated tax, which French media estimated at around 500 million euros (£441 million).

Apple’s French division confirmed the tax payment agreement, but did not disclose how much it had agreed to pay.

“As a multinational company, Apple is regularly audited by fiscal authorities around the world,” Apple France said in a statement.

“The French tax administration recently concluded a multi-year audit on the company’s French accounts, and those details will be published in our public accounts,” it said.
French business magazine L’Express/L’Expansion, which reported the tax payment figure, said the deal was reached in December after several months of negotiations between tax authorities and the company.

France is pushing for a European Union-wide tax on the world’s top digital and software companies such as Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, Amazon , Facebook and Apple that use complex intra-group arrangements to pay low single-digit tax rates on profits derived from European customers. The arrangements are not illegal.

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I cut Apple out of my life. It was devastating • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill, continuing her series of blocking the big tech giants from her life in order; she’s given up her iPhone and has got a Nokia featurephone:

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Typing on the device is excruciating. It has 15 buttons: 0-9, *, #, left, right, and enter. If you want to type “c”, you have to press 1 three times. (Or you can turn on T9 predictive text, which I do, so that I can press 1-1-8 and have it guess that I mean “act,” “cat,” “bat,” or “abu,” in that order.)

It is basic as hell, but incredibly you can access the internet on it, very slowly, via a browser from Opera.

As I leave T-Mobile, I send my husband, Trevor, a text; his is the only number I have memorized, and the new phone doesn’t have my contacts. “Hello from my new phone” is exhausting to compose, and I have to stand still while I write the message. I can’t believe people actually wanted to text rather than call when texting was this hard to do.

Trevor doesn’t text me back. Rude.

I try to explore the phone while walking home, but it’s so hard to do without a touch screen that I almost turn my ankle twice on the sidewalk before I give up.

When I get home, I find out why I haven’t gotten a text from Trevor: There are two iMessages from him on the notification screen of my (now banned) iPhone. Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.

Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.

Still using my damn MacBook Air, I Google “how to turn off iMessaging.” I turn it off, but it causes problems for the rest of the experiment; some people’s texts just don’t get to me, particularly if they are sent to group threads in which all the people have iPhones except me. It’s harder to get out of Apple’s ecosystem than Google’s.

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The rest of the series is here. Two more weeks to go.
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Facebook paid people $20 monthly for access to their digital activity. Why did they sign up? • Slate

Shannon Palus:

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One user, who identified themselves as 32 years old and reported that they had netted $30 in gift cards with the app, told me via email, “I’m not too worried about that data because I’m almost certain these companies collect that stuff anyway,” and that, “Google and Amazon know a lot already.” The user explained they do a lot of little paid tasks to earn money, like downloading apps or completing surveys. It isn’t significant, they said, but acts as a little bonus to their household income, which they told me is $60,000 a year. “Lately most of my earnings have gone to simple things (groceries, MetroCards, date night),” they wrote.

Others on Reddit expressed similar sentiments. “I have been enjoying the small amount of money. It helps me buy frivolous things like new games which I may not get as often,” wrote another user, who said they were perplexed as to why reporters like me were “asking about why I would give up so much data.” They wrote they thought the program was upfront in “clearly stat[ing] they farm data for money.” (Perhaps fittingly, when I messaged this person for more information, they offered to answer for $25—a deal which journalistic ethics compelled me to decline.)

Not everyone seemed as unquestioningly enthusiastic about the trade. One user, who said they were 40 (which put them over the age that Facebook was recruiting for), posted that the VPN was “quite obviously some shady shit,” and said they had purposefully installed it on an old junk phone they didn’t use anymore.

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Their bigger worry was that the program would get shut down. And guess what!
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Apple restores Google’s internal iOS apps after certificate misuse punishment • TechCrunch

Just for completeness. It did the same for Facebook after a short period in the sin bin.
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Marshmello just played a live set to 10m people in video game Fortnite – and that wasn’t even the most interesting move he made this weekend • Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

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We’ve been intrigued by the fact that Tencent – yes, that Tencent – acquired 40% of Fortnite maker Epic Games for a mere $330m in 2013. And we’ve marveled at the game’s huge audience, which stood at a total of over 200m players in November last year… roughly the same volume as Spotify’s monthly active user count at the close of 2018.

Now, following on from loose tie-ins with the likes of Drake and record label Astralwerks (via Twitch star Ninja), Fortnite has formed yet another significant link to the music industry.

Yesterday (February 2), DJ star Marshmello played an exclusive in-game concert in Fornite at 2pm ET. Fortnite players could watch the virtual show for free, so long as they made sure their avatar was available at the concert’s location (Pleasant Park).

The numbers are now coming in on the event’s audience, and they’re mighty impressive: according to reliable sources, over 10 million concurrent users witnessed Marshmello’s virtual concert. These people’s in-game avatars were all able to hit the virtual dancefloor in front of Marshmello’s own avatar and show off their moves.

Fans now can, and no doubt will, buy official Marshmello X Fortnite merch – with a hooded sweatshirt setting you back no less than $55.

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Second Life did it first, but Fortnite has probably done it best.
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EU orders recall of children’s smartwatch over severe privacy concerns • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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For the first time, EU authorities have announced plans to recall a product from the European market because of a data privacy issue.

The product is Safe-KID-One, a children’s smartwatch produced by German electronics vendor ENOX.

According to the company’s website, the watch comes with a trove of features, such as a built-in GPS tracker, built-in microphone and speaker, a calling and SMS text function, and a companion Android mobile app that parents can use to keep track and contact their children.

The product is what most parents regularly look in a modern smartwatch but in a RAPEX (Rapid Alert System for Non-Food Products) alert published last week and spotted by Dutch news site Tweakers, European authorities ordered a mass recall of all smartwatches from end users citing severe privacy lapses.

“The mobile application accompanying the watch has unencrypted communications with its backend server and the server enables unauthenticated access to data,” said authorities in the RAPEX alert. “As a consequence, the data such as location history, phone numbers, serial number can easily be retrieved and changed.”

On top of this, authorities also said that “a malicious user can send commands to any watch making it call another number of his choosing, can communicate with the child wearing the device or locate the child through GPS.”

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But it gets worse: the Android app is owned not by Enox, but by a Chinese developer, so the data loops through Chinese servers.
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Web design test • Can’t Unsee

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Select the design that is most correct

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Very simple at first, then harder: pick which of two onscreen designs (dialog boxes, profile pictures, auction site listings) better conforms to good web design rules. Engaging.
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Apple Watch ‘fall detection’ feature credited with saving man’s life • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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According to a report from NRK, a 67-year old from Norway named Toralv Østvang credits his Apple Watch Series 4 with saving his life. The story is that Østvang experienced a serious fall in his bathroom whereupon his Apple Watch automatically contacted rescue personnel. Recall, the Apple Watch, upon detecting a fall, will send a message to local emergency services — along with information regarding your location —  if it detects that a user has been immobile for a full minute following a fall.

About a half hour after the fall, rescue workers arrived on the scene and found Østvang lying on his bathroom floor, unconscious and bloody. In the midst of the fall, Østvang also sustained three fractures to his face.

The fall detection feature on the Apple Watch is obviously geared towards older folks and, as a result, is off by default unless a user is 65 or older.

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All else it needs is to contact the news agencies and you’ve got the perfect self-marketing device. As with the stories about the Watch identifying unusual heart activity and ECG patterns, this is technology that you’re only indifferent to if you’re indifferent to living – which makes the sale just that bit easier.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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