Start Up No.1369: Facebook’s rightwing insiders, Snapchat helps voter registration, can Trump build a (fire)wall?, Excel prompts gene rethink, and more


You won’t believe how (in)efficient wireless charging is! CC-licensed photo by Aaron Yoo 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. Another one! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook employees wonder what would happen if Trump used their platform to dispute election results • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac:

»

Last Friday, at another all-hands meeting, employees asked Zuckerberg how right-wing publication Breitbart News could remain a Facebook News partner after sharing a video that promoted unproven treatments and said masks were unnecessary to combat the novel coronavirus. The video racked up 14 million views in six hours before it was removed from Breitbart’s page, though other accounts continued to share it.

Zuckerberg danced around the question but did note that Breitbart could be removed from the company’s news tab if it were to receive two strikes for publishing misinformation within 90 days of each other. (Facebook News partners, which include dozens of publications such as BuzzFeed News and the Washington Post, receive compensation and placement in a special news tab on the social network.)

“This was certainly one strike against them for misinformation, but they don’t have others in the last 90 days,” Zuckerberg said. “So by the policies that we have, which by the way I think are generally pretty reasonable on this, it doesn’t make sense to remove them.”

But some of Facebook’s own employees gathered evidence they say shows Breitbart — along with other right-wing outlets and figures including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, and conservative video production nonprofit Prager University — has received special treatment that helped it avoid running afoul of company policy. They see it as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for right-wing publishers and pages, many of which have alleged that the social network is biased against conservatives.

…On July 22, a Facebook employee posted a message to the company’s internal misinformation policy group noting that some misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been cleared by someone at Facebook seemingly acting on the publication’s behalf.

“A Breitbart escalation marked ‘urgent: end of day’ was resolved on the same day, with all misinformation strikes against Breitbart’s page and against their domain cleared without explanation,” the employee wrote.

The same employee said a partly false rating applied to an Instagram post from Charlie Kirk was flagged for “priority” escalation by Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy. Kaplan once served in George W. Bush’s administration and drew criticism for publicly supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court.

«

Kaplan’s influence is creating a disinformation climate that is toxic to the rule of law. Increasingly, the question is whether Facebook can be saved in time for the US to save itself.
unique link to this extract


The White House’s plan to purge Chinese tech from the internet is just bluster — for now • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

It’s an expansion of the White House’s 5G Clean Path initiative, which was announced earlier this year with the aim of keeping Chinese hardware companies like Huawei and ZTE out of America’s 5G infrastructure. The Clean Network program takes that anti-Chinese impulse and applies it not only to 5G but also telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables, apps, and app stores. It would mean no Chinese apps in US app stores, no US data stored on the Chinese cloud, and no US apps on Chinese smartphones.

Announcing the plan yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a major aim of the program was to keep American citizens safe from Chinese spies and censorship. In what would be a serious escalation of the administration’s current war against TikTok, Pompeo said that under the Clean Program, the US government would remove all “untrusted” Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat from American app stores.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok and WeChat and others, are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for Chinese Communist Party content censorship,” said Pompeo in the press briefing, reports CNBC.

But while the Clean Network program is grand in scope, it’s not clear how or if it can be enforced, especially with the Trump administration distracted by an election challenge in a few months’ time.

«

As usual, it’s something vaguely resembling a good idea, done in entirely the wrong way. The US needs rules about how all data is used, not rules about “Chinese” apps. It’s also the usual tipping of the hand of the Trump admin’s authoritarian instincts: other countries that do this sort of blunt-tool approach are Turkey, India, Russia and China. This won’t stop scams and won’t protect American data, because if Chinese state hackers want it, they’ll just grab it from data brokers or the zillions of unsound web servers out there. Including the US government’s.
unique link to this extract


Snapchat adds in-app voter registration targeted at young people • Axios

Sara Fischer:

»

Snapchat successfully registered 450,000 people through its app during the 2018 midterms. Data released in May shows that 50% of those registered actually went out and cast ballots.

What’s next: The new tools will roll out in September, but Snapchat is announcing the tools Thursday on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Snapchat says it will also release new content within its content arm, Discover, that will help inform users about how to register to vote and turn out.

«

For context: Snapchat reaches 80 million users who are over 18 in the US.

Wonder if Facebook will copy this feature?
unique link to this extract


Twitter will label government officials and state-affiliated media accounts • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

The state-affiliated media category includes outlets where a government “exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” (The labels will also appear on senior staff members’ accounts.) It doesn’t include outlets that receive government funding but maintain editorial independence.

Twitter already banned state-affiliated media from buying Twitter ads, and it’s now going to avoid amplifying these outlets, “including on the home timeline, notifications, and search.” The full extent of this isn’t clear: searching for Russia-affiliated RT, for example, still brings up the account’s name with its new label. A Twitter spokesperson also tells The Verge that “there won’t be a change to the account’s visibility if someone follows them” — so if you follow an account like RT, you’ll still see its tweets in the algorithmically organized “top tweets” timeline.

Twitter is following a similar move by Facebook, which added labels to state-owned media in June, and YouTube, which announced a labeling policy in 2018. However, Twitter is apparently the first major platform to explicitly lock these accounts out of its recommendation algorithms.

«

A lot of fun to be had looking at which Chinese media accounts do and don’t get these.
unique link to this extract


Wireless charging is a disaster waiting to happen • OneZero

Eric Ravenscraft:

»

I tested a Pixel 4 using multiple wireless chargers, as well as the standard charging cable that comes with the phone. I used a high-precision power meter that sits between the charging block and the power outlet to measure power consumption.
In my tests, I found that wireless charging used, on average, around 47% more power than a cable.

Charging the phone from completely dead to 100% using a cable took an average of 14.26 watt-hours (Wh). Using a wireless charger took, on average, 21.01 Wh. That comes out to slightly more than 47% more energy for the convenience of not plugging in a cable. In other words, the phone had to work harder, generate more heat, and suck up more energy when wirelessly charging to fill the same size battery.

How the phone was positioned on the charger significantly affected charging efficiency. The flat Yootech charger I tested was difficult to line up properly. Initially I intended to measure power consumption with the coils aligned as well as possible, then intentionally misalign them to detect the difference.

Instead, during one test, I noticed that the phone wasn’t charging. It looked like it was aligned properly, but while trying to fiddle with it, the difference between positions that charged properly and those that didn’t charge at all could be measured in millimetres.

«

Personally, I long ago gave up wireless charging on a phone: it’s too easy to get the position wrong (hence zero charging), and too slow. It’s hard to see phone companies retreating from it, though, because it has the lustre of convenience.
unique link to this extract


Scientists rename genes because Microsoft Excel reads them as dates • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

»

Microsoft Excel’s automatic formatting is normally helpful for finishing spreadsheets quickly, but it’s proving to be an agent of chaos for geneticists. The Verge has learned that the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee has issued guidelines for naming human genes to prevent Excel’s automatic date formatting from altering data. MARCH1 (Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1), for example, should now be labeled MARCHF1 to stop Excel from changing it to 1-Mar.

The names of 27 genes have been changed in the past year to avoid Excel-related errors, HGNC coordinator Elspeth Bruford said. This isn’t a rare error, either, as Excel had affected about a fifth of genetics-related papers examined in a 2016 study.

There will still be a library of discarded names and symbols to help reduce confusion going forward.

The scientific community has changed gene names before, but usually to minimize false positives in search results or to be sensitive to the concerns of patients. Now, it’s directly in response to software design — technology is getting in the way of research rather than speeding it up.

«

Ah yes – noted this problem back in February 2018, and that paper notes that the problem has been ongoing since 2004. That’s 16 years of errors which may have been overlooked. Terrific screenplay plot device.
unique link to this extract


April 2019: Secrecy, self-dealing, and greed at the N.R.A. • The New Yorker

Mike Spies, just over a year ago:

»

The National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) and Ackerman [McQueen, a PR company] have become so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Top officials and staff move freely between the two organizations; Oliver North, the former Iran-Contra operative, who now serves as the N.R.A.’s president, is paid roughly a million dollars a year through Ackerman, according to two N.R.A. sources.

But this relationship, which in many ways has built the contemporary N.R.A., seems also to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state. According to interviews and to documents that I obtained—federal tax forms, charity records, contracts, corporate filings, and internal communications—a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.

Memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object. “Management has subordinated its judgment to the vendors,” the documents allege. “Trust in the top has eroded.”

«

The New York attorney-general filed on Thursday to have the NRA dissolved on the basis that there’s fraud and self-dealing going on. The article by Spies either triggered the investigation, or was informed by it. A political move, to be sure, but in a sense so was going after Al Capone for non-payment of taxes.
unique link to this extract


Hello! You’ve been referred here because you’re wrong about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

Hello! Someone has referred you to this post because you’ve said something quite wrong about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
I apologize if it feels a bit cold and rude to respond in such an impersonal way, but I’ve been wasting a ton of time lately responding individually to different people saying the same wrong things over and over again, and I was starting to feel like this guy [from the “Someone is wrong on the internet” XKCD cartoon].

And… I could probably use more sleep, and my blood pressure could probably use a little less time spent responding to random wrong people. And, so, for my own good you get this. Also for you own good. Because you don’t want to be wrong on the internet, do you?

Also I’ve totally copied the idea for this from Ken “Popehat” White, who wrote Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About The First Amendment a few years ago, and it’s great. You should read it too. Yes, you. Because if you’re wrong about 230, there’s a damn good chance you’re wrong about the 1st Amendment too.

«

One to read – because everywhere I look there are folks who don’t understand S230 – and to keep in the bookmarks so you too can refer people to it.
unique link to this extract


Samsung Galaxy Note 20: this pandemic sure changed smartphone marketing • WSJ

»

Samsung’s Galaxy Note smartphones have always been known for on-the-go productivity, but now we’re not going anywhere. WSJ’s Joanna Stern looks at how Samsung’s changed the phone—and its promotional messages—due to Covid-19.

«

Stern’s are the only videos worth watching about smartphones. And this all rings so, so true. As a comment elsewhere said, “These days, we’re not working from home – we’re living at work.”
unique link to this extract


The Beirut explosion and the dangers of ammonium nitrate • Arc Digital

Joel Looper:

»

Not long before this ammonium nitrate was seized by Lebanese port authorities — and it’s not yet clear why it was seized — a similar explosion happened on the other side of the world in the central Texas town of West, with a population under 3,000. The blast on April 17, 2013 killed fifteen, injured more than 160, and destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings. Windows were blown out seven miles away in Abbott, Texas, the smoke could be seen twenty miles away in Waco, and the resulting 2.1-magnitude earthquake could be felt as far away as the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 240 tons of ammonium nitrate were involved in that blast. (Watch the West, Texas explosion here.)

Both videos show how violent ammonium nitrate explosions can be. The chemical is an oxidizer. All it needs is contact with an open flame for a chemical reaction to take place, and once it begins, the process is rapid and frighteningly powerful. While ammonium nitrate is cheap and easy to manufacture, useful in fertilizer production — and, yes, bomb-making — under the wrong conditions the compound can become extraordinarily lethal.

That became obvious to U.S. officials after the West explosion. After a three year investigation into conditions at the West Fertilizer Company, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented several measures to prevent such a disaster from happening again. These included guidelines to help first responders navigate situations like the one that happened in West, and a requirement that companies make their hazard planning documents available.

«

Now, guess which administration reversed these requirements in November 2019, increasing the possibility of such an explosion happening again? (Thanks G for the link.)
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1368: Facebook screws up political ads, Instagram screws up political hashtags, Google screws up WearOS v YouTube Music, and more


Will airports still look like this after the pandemic? CC-licensed photo by Jonathan Cutrer 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. Unticketed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Can killing cookies save journalism? • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:

»

A study performed by Google last year, for example, concluded that disabling cookies reduced publisher revenue by more than 50%. (Research by an independent team of economists, however, pegged the cookie premium at only 4%. Needless to say, there were methodological differences.)

If the Google study was right, then [Dutch broadcaster] NPO [which essentially let everyone opt out of targeted advertising] should have been heading for financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be true. Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

This makes NPO a particularly powerful entrant into a long-running debate over the value of targeted advertising. Ad tech companies, a category dominated by Google and Facebook but which teems with other players, argue that microtargeting is better for everyone: users like “relevant” ads, advertisers like being able to reach potential customers more precisely, and publishers get paid more for ads with a higher click rate.

A growing body of evidence, however, calls each of these premises into question. The significance of the debate goes far beyond internet privacy, implicating the viability of journalism and, by extension, the health of democracy.

«

Not giving money to middlemen turns out to be a great way to keep more money for yourself. I’ve never seen the point in targeted advertising.
unique link to this extract


A “bug” in Instagram’s hashtags has been favouring Donald Trump • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac:

»

For at least the last two months, a key Instagram feature, which algorithmically pushes users toward supposedly related content, has been treating hashtags associated with President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in very different ways. Searches for Biden also return a variety of pro-Trump messages, while searches for Trump-related topics only returned the specific hashtags, like #MAGA or #Trump — which means searches for Biden-related hashtags also return counter-messaging, while those for Trump do not.

Earlier this week, a search on Instagram for #JoeBiden would have surfaced nearly 390,000 posts tagged with the former vice president’s name along with related hashtags selected by the platform’s algorithm. Users searching Instagram for #JoeBiden might also see results for #joebiden2020, as well as pro-Trump hashtags like #trump2020landslide and #democratsdestroyamerica.

A similar search for #DonaldTrump on the platform, however, provided a totally different experience. Besides showing 7 million posts tagged with the president’s name, Instagram did not present any related hashtags that would have pushed users toward different content or promoted alternative viewpoints.

The difference between these two results, which an Instagram spokesperson told BuzzFeed News was a “bug,” prevented hashtags including #Trump and #MAGA from being associated with potentially negative content. Meanwhile, Instagram hashtags associated with the Democratic presidential candidate — #JoeBiden and #Biden, for example — were presented alongside content that included overtly pro-Trump content and attacks on the former vice president.

«

Instagram then whined, after this was published, that Buzzfeed News had “cherry-picked” from tens of thousands of hashtags that were affected. To which Mac responded that “if Instagram considers comparing the leading hashtags of the top two presidential candidates as ‘cherry-picking,’ I am worried for your platform. How about you guys focus on fixing your platform so reporters don’t have to be your product managers?”

Amen to that last.
unique link to this extract


Trump ads on Facebook about Biden and police are false, fact-checkers find • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg and Andrew Ba Tran:

»

Fact-checkers were unanimous in their assessments when President Trump began claiming in June that Democrat Joe Biden wanted to “defund” police forces. PolitiFact called the allegations “false,” as did CheckYourFact. The Associated Press detailed “distortions” in Trump’s claims. FactCheck.org called an ad airing them “deceptive.” Another site, the Dispatch, said there is “nothing currently to support” Trump’s claims.

But these judgments, made by five fact-checking organizations that are part of Facebook’s independent network for policing falsehoods on the platform, were not shared with Facebook’s users. That is because the company specifically exempts politicians from its rules against deception. Ads containing the falsehoods continue to run freely on the platform, without any kind of warning or label.

Enabled by Facebook’s rules, Trump’s reelection campaign has shown versions of the false claim on Facebook at least 22.5 million times, in more than 1,400 ads costing between $350,000 and $553,000, a Washington Post analysis found based on data from Facebook’s Ad Library.

«

Facebook is awful. Awful.
unique link to this extract


Facebook must better police online hate, state attorneys general say • The New York Times

Davey Alba:

»

Twenty state attorneys general on Wednesday called on Facebook to better prevent messages of hate, bias and disinformation from spreading, and said the company needed to provide more help to users facing online abuse.

In a letter to the social media giant, the officials said they regularly encountered people facing online intimidation and harassment on Facebook. They outlined seven steps the company should take, including allowing third-party audits of hate content and offering real-time assistance to users.

“We hope to work with you to ensure that fewer individuals suffer online harassment and discrimination, and that it is quickly and effectively addressed when they do,” said the letter, which was addressed to Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. The officials who signed the letter, all of them Democrats, represent states including New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, as well as the District of Columbia.

The letter adds to the rising pressure facing Mr. Zuckerberg and his company to stop disinformation and harassment on Facebook.

«

He’ll ignore it.
unique link to this extract


What travel will look like after coronavirus • WSJ

Scott McCartney:

»

When will we be traveling again in large numbers? And what will travel be like in the future?

The first question depends on a medical solution to the coronavirus pandemic. The second is best answered with experience.

I asked eight travel pioneers for predictions on what the future of travel will be—current and former chairmen and chief executives of travel companies and a former secretary of transportation. All have experience from past crises and recoveries.

Most foresee a lasting decline in business travel, but think leisure travel will bounce back robustly. That means airlines and hotels will have to change their business plans, being unable to rely as much on rich revenue from corporate travelers. Expect higher ticket prices and room rates for vacationers to cover the costs with fewer high-dollar customers to subsidize bargain-seekers.

“The airline industry is going to have to examine its business plan,” says Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines. “You are never going to see the volume of business travel that you’ve seen in the past.”

He estimates one-third to one-half of business travel will go away. More meetings will take place electronically. Trips once thought necessary will be seen as superfluous. “Everybody who depends on business travel is going to have to rethink their game plan,” Mr. Crandall says.

«

I seem to recall predictions of business travel “going away” after 9/11. That didn’t happen. Perhaps this time it will.
unique link to this extract


The truth is paywalled but the lies are free • Current Affairs

Nathan Robinson, pointing out that reliable news sites almost always have paywalls, but junk ones definitely don’t:

»

people can find their ways around paywalls. SciHub is a completely illegal but extremely convenient means of obtaining academic research for free. (I am purely describing it, not advocating it.) You can find a free version of the article debunking race and IQ myths on ResearchGate, a site that has engaged in mass copyright infringement in order to make research accessible.

Often, because journal publishers tightly control access to their copyrighted work in order to charge those exorbitant fees for PDFs, the versions of articles that you can get for free are drafts that have not yet gone through peer review, and have thus been subjected to less scrutiny. This means that the more reliable an article is, the less accessible it is. On the other hand, pseudo-scholarhip is easy to find.

Right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Mackinac Center, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation pump out slickly-produced policy documents on every subject under the sun. They are utterly untrustworthy—the conclusion is always going to be “let the free market handle the problem,” no matter what the problem or what the facts of the case. But it is often dressed up to look sober-minded and non-ideological. 

«

The essay gets into the much bigger question of why we can’t repay creators based on how much their work is read. (Have you seen Medium, Nathan?) And he does acknowledge the existence of The Guardian, though he says “but it’s owned by a trust!” as though that was the answer to everything. It isn’t.
unique link to this extract


Wear OS will lose Google Play Music months before a YouTube Music app exists • Android Police

Jules Wang:

»

Google Play Music is being phased out in favor of YouTube Music starting next month. That change already exacerbates the need for the latter to achieve a desirable feature parity with its predecessor, but it also now presents a challenging chasm for Wear OS users who will lose access to Play Music without a robust YouTube Music experience.

A new Wear OS help page tells users that they won’t be able to download or even use Google Play Music “in the next couple of weeks.” And until a proper YouTube Music experience appears “in the coming months,” that means they’ll have to resort to other apps in order to download and play local files.

People are understandably upset about the lack of commitment Google has to its own wearables platform. It’s been a struggle since day one, after all, and it will continue to be for some time. For the time being, as with almost any media source, Wear OS users will be able to control YouTube Music playback on their phone from their watches.

«

I haven’t been able to keep up with Google’s naming on its music services for ages. Seems like it can’t keep up with keeping them organised across its hardware lines either, which is a terrible indictment of the coordination between the software and hardware sides. And Google doesn’t even offer a smartwatch – this is a mismatch between software for one sort of hardware and software for another sort of hardware. John Gruber argues that Google has just lost interest in Android and WearOS, and it’s hard to make the contrary case.
unique link to this extract


Microsoft integrates Android apps into Windows 10 with new Your Phone update • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Microsoft is now allowing Windows 10 users to run Android apps side by side with Windows applications on a PC. It’s part of a new feature in Your Phone, and it builds upon the mirroring that Microsoft’s Your Phone app already provides. You can now access a list of Android apps in Microsoft’s Your Phone app and launch these mobile apps accordingly. These will run in a separate window outside of the Your Phone app, mirrored from your phone.

This new Android app support also allows Windows 10 users to multitask with other Windows apps with alt+tab support, and you’ll even be able to pin these Android apps to the Windows 10 taskbar or Start menu. The ability to launch apps directly from Your Phone means you no longer have to search around on a mirrored experience of your phone, you can simply pin your favorite Android apps to the taskbar and run them as if they’re regular Windows apps.

«

Pretty good! Beat Apple in getting to–

»

Not all Android apps will work seamlessly with this new Your Phone feature, though. Microsoft warns that some may block the ability to cast to other screens, producing a black screen instead. Some apps and games will also not respond to a keyboard or mouse, and others may play audio from your phone.

«

Oh well. But certainly cements the two dominant ecosystems for mobile and phone. A far wiser move by Microsoft than the quixotic pursuit of Windows Phone.
unique link to this extract


Levandowski gets 18 months in prison for stealing Google files • Reuters

Paresh Dave:

»

A U.S. judge on Tuesday sentenced former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to 18 months in prison for stealing a trade secret from Google related to self-driving cars months before becoming the head of Uber Technologies Inc’s rival unit.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco said Levandowski, who was convicted on Tuesday following a March plea agreement, said Levandowski could enter custody once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

Alsup said a sentence short of imprisonment would have given “a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets,” comparing what Levandowski took to a “competitor’s game plan.”

The 75-year-old judge, who has been involved in Silicon Valley litigation for nearly five decades, described Levandowski’s conviction as the “biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen.”

“Billions [of dollars] in the future were at play, and when those kind of financial incentives are there good people will do terrible things, and that’s what happened here,” Alsup said.

Prosecutors sought a 27-month prison sentence. Levandowski requested one-year confinement at his Marin County home, contending that bouts with pneumonia in recent years would make him susceptible to death from the novel coronavirus while in prison. His attorneys asked the judge to consider that investigators found no evidence that “Levandowski used any of Google’s trade secrets after leaving Google’s employment.”

Levandowski transferred more than 14,000 Google files including development schedules and product designs to his personal laptop before leaving the company and while negotiating a deal with Uber, where he briefly led its self-driving car unit.

«

unique link to this extract


Files by Google adds PIN protection for your most sensitive files on Android • The Verge

Jon Porter:

»

The Files by Google app, which primarily gives Android users an easy way to manage files and free up space on their phone, is getting a new PIN-protected “Safe Folder” feature. After setting up a four-digit PIN, you can store any of your sensitive files in this encrypted folder. The folder is locked the moment you switch away to another app, and its contents are only accessible through Files by Google.

According to Google, the feature is mainly designed to help people who share Android devices, which it says is common for women in many parts of the world. Safe Folders keep important files like identity documents safe and secure from accidental deletion or sharing by kids, for example. And yes, it could also help anyone who wants to keep any “sensitive photos” private.

«

If my own experience with files you can PIN-lock is any guide, the world will soon be full of people who have either used their cashcard PIN or birthday to lock these folders, or who cannot remember the PIN to unlock the folder one day after they lock it.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1367: how to escape an island, coal use slumps further, Apple’s Schiller steps aside, Google’s Fitbit acquisition investigated, and more


The UK Home Office is to stop using an algorithm deemed ‘racist’ for processing visa applications. CC-licensed photo by Jon Evans 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 stranded (yet). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Missing sailors stranded on Pacific island saved by giant SOS in the sand • The Guardian

Ben Doherty:

»

Three Micronesian sailors stranded on a remote Pacific island have been found alive and well after a rescue team spotted their giant SOS message written into the sand on a beach.

Australian and US military aircraft found the three men on tiny Pikelot Island, nearly 200km west of where they’d set off. Rescuers said they were “in good condition” with no significant injuries.

The men had been missing for three days after their seven-metre skiff ran out of fuel and strayed off course.

Authorities in the US territory of Guam raised the alarm on Saturday after the men failed to complete a 42km trip from Poluwat to Pulap atolls.

Australia’s HMAS Canberra was sailing between Australia and Hawaii when it received the call for help.

On Sunday, a helicopter from the Canberra spotted the giant SOS, close to a small makeshift shelter on the beach, and it landed on the tiny island to check the men’s condition and give them food and water.

«

I find this really heartening. I’d only ever seen it in Tintin-style cartoons, but it’s great to know that it really works in practice. Next time, lads, please also set fire to things inside the letters so it shows at night.
unique link to this extract


We won! Home Office to stop using racist visa algorithm • Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

»

We are delighted to announce that the Home Office has agreed to scrap its ‘visa streaming’ algorithm, in response to legal action we launched with tech-justice group Foxglove.

From Friday, 7 August, Home Secretary Priti Patel will suspend the “visa streaming” algorithm “pending a redesign of the process,” which will consider “issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality” in automated visa applications.

»

“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates. This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

«

–Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI

Today’s win represents the UK’s first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office’s decision effectively concedes the claim.

«

Small – and not-so-small – victories. Important to challenge this, but you have to know that these systems are being used in order to mount the challenge. That’s the real problem. Because you know that once you dig into them, they’ll be rotten with assumptions.
unique link to this extract


UK coal use to fall to lowest level since industrial revolution • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:

»

UK coal use is likely to soon fall back to levels last seen during the industrial revolution, Carbon Brief analysis of official figures suggests.

The UK used 49 million tonnes of coal in 2014 according to Carbon Brief estimates. That’s more than a 20% reduction compared to the previous year, and the joint lowest coal use in  records going back to the 1850s. Only 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, had equally low coal consumption.

There are several reasons to expect coal use to continue falling this year, suggesting a clear historic low is in store for 2015.

Getting out of coal as quickly as possible is necessary in developed countries, to prevent dangerous global warming. To assess UK progress we’ve looked back at its changing relationship with coal, and what that means for the climate.

«

A longer-term view shows that we’re now using as little (or as much) coal as when Stephenson got his patent for the Rocket steam engine. I guess there was a lot being used to heat houses.
unique link to this extract


Greg Joswiak replaces Phil Schiller as head of Apple marketing • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

»

Apple’s longtime marketing chief, Phil Schiller, is stepping into a somewhat smaller role after decades with the company. Schiller is dropping his role as senior vice president of worldwide marketing, but he’ll remain in charge of the App Store and Apple Events. Greg Joswiak, previously the head of product marketing, will take over Schiller’s former position as Apple’s overall marketing leader.

Marketing is a huge role inside of Apple that goes beyond simply advertising products, so this marks a significant change within the company. As Apple puts it, the marketing division is “responsible for Apple’s product management and product marketing, developer relations, market research, business management, as well as education, enterprise, and international marketing.” Joswiak has been in Apple leadership roles for more than two decades, and he’s led Apple’s worldwide product marketing for the last four years.

Schiller has been with Apple since 1997, helping to steer the company from one of its lowest points to the technology juggernaut that it is today. While he’s been in charge of marketing, Schiller is also known for his involvement in Apple’s hardware, often presenting new products — like the previous Mac Pro — onstage at events.

«

Schiller has been a crucial member of Apple. Incredible to think that he joined at the age of 27, and this year turned 60. More than three decades, from just after its darkest hour to its biggest. And he’s been involved in crucial decisions: he was one of the people who lobbied Steve Jobs to allow third-party developers to create the App Store in 2007. Jobs was Apple, but Schiller in many ways is even more the embodiment of Apple: outwardly calm, amiable, and prepared, but behind his eyes always working the angles and looking to the future. I interviewed him many times on and off the record and never felt I was being shortchanged.
unique link to this extract


Last hurrah? 27-inch iMac get Intel processor upgrade, all-SSD storage, T2 chip – Six Colors

Jason Snell:

»

At Apple’s developer conference in June, Tim Cook said that the company still had Macs with Intel processors in its pipeline. It must be rapidly filling with Macs with Apple silicon, but on Tuesday that pipeline disgorged a new Intel-based 27-inch iMac with a bunch of technical improvements, while retaining the prices of previous models.

For those expecting a redesign to the exterior of the iMac, which has been largely unchanged for many years now, it’s clear that any major rethinking of Apple’s venerable all-in-one is going to have to wait for the Apple silicon era. Apple’s not doing what it did with the iMac back during the last processor transition and redesigning the exterior just before swapping chips, and future Mac historians will be thankful for that.

…As for the future, is this the last Intel Mac we’ll see? There’s no way to tell, though reading between the lines, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some more Intel-based Mac releases as Apple progresses through its two-year-long processor transition. But I’d wager good money that the next time we see an iMac update, there won’t be an Intel processor at its heart. And perhaps it will look appreciably different, too.

«

My guess for the order of Apple Silicon (ARM) updates is: MacBook, MacBook Pro 13in, Mac mini, MacBook Pro 16in, iMacs, MacBook Air, Mac Pro.

The Air as the last laptop to join because it’s insanely profitable once they’ve locked down the design, and they only updated it recently. They’ll want 18 months of that lovely profit first – and people don’t mind about the speed; it’s the name and the shape.

Also, I bet Schiller will want to introduce at least one of these machines.
unique link to this extract


Science Twitter got catfished by a fake professor who ‘died from Covid’ • Gizmodo

Ed Cara:

»

A bizarre saga of events played out on social media over the weekend, embroiling much of the close-knit world of scientists, academics, and researchers on Twitter. It started with accusations that Arizona State University’s actions had exposed one of their faculty members, an Indigenous woman and anthropologist, to an ultimately fatal case of covid-19. But it ended with allegations that the death was a hoax, carried out by someone who also faked the supposed professor’s entire existence.

Given that many colleges and schools are debating if and how it’s possible to reopen physically this fall in the midst of the pandemic, the accusations of negligence on the part of Arizona State University carry a heavy weight. But many members of the science Twitter community now suspect that the academic who was the first to report the woman’s death, Tennessee-based neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, has pulled off a catfishing scam for years, citing inconsistencies in the woman’s accounts of events in her now-gone tweets.

“Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We have been looking into this since this weekend and cannot verify any connection with the university,” an ASU representative said in an email. If this was indeed a catfishing scheme, the faux death would not only make a mockery of the concerns people have about covid-19, but also the challenges that women of color continue to face in science. 

«

A fabulous example of people wanting to believe, and ignoring a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. But equally, when you have someone who’s determined to catfish you hard, you need a very suspicious mind to detect it, which most people don’t come with. (Or read the NYTimes version of the story.)
unique link to this extract


Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades • Vice

Nafeez Ahmed:

»

Two theoretical physicists specializing in complex systems conclude that global deforestation due to human activities is on track to trigger the “irreversible collapse” of human civilization within the next two to four decades. 

If we continue destroying and degrading the world’s forests, Earth will no longer be able to sustain a large human population, according to a peer-reviewed paper published this May in Nature Scientific Reports. They say that if the rate of deforestation continues, “all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years.”

“Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down,” they write.  

This trajectory would make the collapse of human civilization take place much earlier due to the escalating impacts of deforestation on the planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival—including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation, water cycle regulation, support for natural and human food systems, and homes for countless species.  

«

You wanted good news? Sorry.
unique link to this extract


Google’s secret home security superpower: your smart speaker with its always-on mics •

Janko Roettgers:

»

Last week, Reddit user Brazedowl received a curious notification on his phone: Google was telling him that a smoke detector in his home had gone off. Brazedowl, a teacher from North Carolina who goes by Drew in real life, knew about the smoke alarm — he was at home himself and had just fried some sausages in his kitchen. But up until that moment, he had no idea that his smart speaker was able to detect such events. “Google just made my dumb smoke detectors smart,” he wrote on Reddit. “Pretty rad.”

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the feature was accidentally enabled for some users through a recent software update and has since been rolled back. But in light of Monday’s news that Google invested $450 million — acquiring a 6.6% stake — in home security provider ADT, it may be a sign of things to come for Google, as it hints at the company’s secret home security superpower: millions of smart speakers already in people’s homes.

Once the deal closes, ADT’s more than 20,000 installers will also sell Google-made smart displays, security cameras and other hardware, and ADT will more closely integrate Google technology into its own home security offerings. “The goal is to give customers fewer false alarms, more ways to receive alarm events, and better detection of potential incidents inside and around the home,” Google Nest VP and GM Rishi Chandra said in a blog post.

Brazedowl wasn’t the only Google smart speaker user receiving a possible preview of this kind of incident detection in recent days. Other Reddit users reported getting security alerts after breaking glassware, as well as some false alarms triggered by sounds like popped bubble wrap and high-frequency noises that could be confused with a smoke alarm.

«

Google announced this in May for paying subscribers of its Nest Aware service. But it must be feasible for any Google Home to do this. Always listening, all the time.
unique link to this extract


Mergers: proposed acquisition of Fitbit by Google • EU Competition Commissioner

Margrethe Vestager:

»

Following its first phase investigation, the Commission has concerns about the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages), as well as on the supply of ”ad tech” services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising). By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one.

The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.

…the Commission will also further examine:

• the effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe; and
• whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit.

«

Could take until December. Again, I wonder how Fitbit stays afloat during this.
unique link to this extract


First cruises to set sail post COVID-19 abruptly canceled due to outbreak • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:

»

At least 36 crew members and five passengers of the Norwegian cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, have tested positive for COVID-19.

Four of the infected crew members have been hospitalized and hundreds of passengers are in quarantine, awaiting test results.

MS Roald Amundsen is run by the Norwegian firm Hurtigruten, which in mid-June became the first cruise ship operator in the world to resume voyages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hurtigruten assured travelers that it followed national public health guidelines and touted safety precautions for passengers on board, including social distancing, increased hygiene and sanitation protocols, and a vow to sail at no more than 50% capacity.

“At Hurtigruten, safety always has been, and always will be, our number one priority,” the company says on a COVID-19 safety page on its website. “With over 127 years of experience, we have established strict procedures for protection against infectious [sic] on board our ships.”

In the wake of the outbreak, the company has suspended all cruises. Norway’s government has also banned cruise ships carrying more than 100 people from disembarking passengers at its ports for 14 days.

«

I cannot imagine what in the world would tempt anyone to take a cruise at the moment, unless they’re affiliated with Dignitas.
unique link to this extract


Coronavirus future in USA will be whack-a-mole: Q&A with epidemiologist • USA Today

USA Today interviewed Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox:

»

Q: What do you predict is going to happen when schools open in person?

A. I think a lot of schools will be able to open just fine. But the models all say that the single most important factor in the safety of an internal area that you’re trying to make safe — whether it’s a convention or a company or movie production or a theater — is the ambient viral burden. How bad are the incidence and the prevalence and the death rates in hospitals right outside that school? There will be schools that are located in fortunate places that have, at this point, very low incidence. But this virus hopscotches around.

Q. Even if relatively few kids get seriously ill, don’t they spread the disease? 

A. The school season has been, historically, the place that sets off the fall set of respiratory diseases. We talk about it as the spark that begins the American portion of influenza season. Respiratory viruses begin with the kids going to school and sharing viruses and then taking them home. And then a few weeks later, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: Your kids go to kindergarten and two weeks later, you’re getting a cold. So, I think it will help the virus to continue its growth, and it will spread it everywhere around the country that doesn’t already have it.

Q: Are we on the verge of the perfect storm?

A. Well, it can get really bad. If the epidemic isn’t stopped, it’ll just keep going. Right now maybe 10% of (the 330 million) Americans have had the disease. That means you got 300 million more customers for this disease who have not bought it yet.

«

I’d be surprised if it’s even 10% that have had it. There’s a long way to go. (Thanks G for the link.)
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1366: the impatient media election, a teen hacker’s trajectory, Iran’s coronavirus coverup, Tim Maughan interview, and more


“And from here you can see the Russian hackers downloading all your email, Dr Fox.” CC-licensed photo by British High Commission, New Delhi 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 available on TikTok. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister – sources • Reuters

Jack Stubbs and Guy Faulconbridge:

»

Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Among the stolen information were six tranches of documents detailing British trade negotiations with the United States, which Reuters first reported last year were leaked and disseminated online by a Russian disinformation campaign.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab confirmed that report last month, saying that “Russian actors” had sought to interfere in the election “through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents”.

Reuters was not able to determine which of Fox’s email accounts was hacked and when it was first compromised. It is not clear if Fox, who is still a member of parliament but stood down as trade minister on July 24 last year in a cabinet reshuffle, was a minister at the time.

«

“Which of his accounts”? That’s a worrying sentence: either it was his government account, which you would pray would be hack proof; or it was his personal account, in which case why are highly sensitive documents on there? The suspicion therefore is also that he didn’t use two-factor authentication, and that there wasn’t any network monitoring to see if there were connections to suspicious networks. All in all, a very concerning incident, far more than the simple contents of the emails.

If they were on his personal account, might there be grounds for prosecution under the Official Secrets Act?
unique link to this extract


How the media could get the election story wrong • The New York Times

Ben Smith on how TV and social networks are trying to prepare for an election which could well be decided by postal votes that will take days to count:

»

what the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that.

Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

«

Facebook is possibly the most important player here, but it’s totally predictable too that it’s going to be too pusillanimous about preventing people posting content that will cause real unrest. Maybe if it could just be shut down for a few days? Would anyone notice?
unique link to this extract


From Minecraft tricks to Twitter hack: a Florida teen’s troubled online path • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper, Kate Conger and Kellen Browning:

»

For Graham Ivan Clark, the online mischief-making started early.

By the age of 10, he was playing the video game Minecraft, in part to escape what he told friends was an unhappy home life. In Minecraft, he became known as an adept scammer with an explosive temper who cheated people out of their money, several friends said.

At 15, he joined an online hackers’ forum. By 16, he had gravitated to the world of Bitcoin, appearing to involve himself in a theft of $856,000 of the cryptocurrency, though he was never charged for it, social media and legal records show. On Instagram posts afterward, he showed up with designer sneakers and a bling-encrusted Rolex.

The teenager’s digital misbehavior ended on Friday when the police arrested him at a Tampa, Fla., apartment. Florida prosecutors said Mr. Clark, now 17, was the “mastermind” of a prominent hack last month, accusing him of tricking his way into Twitter’s systems and taking over the accounts of some of the world’s most famous people, including Barack Obama, Kanye West and Jeff Bezos.

His arrest raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defences of what was supposedly one of Silicon Valley’s most sophisticated technology companies.

«

Because… the defences were crap?
unique link to this extract


Coronavirus: Iran cover-up of deaths revealed by data leak • BBC News

»

The number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran’s government claims, a BBC Persian service investigation has found.

The government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its health ministry.

The number of people known to be infected is also almost double official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827.

The official numbers still make Iran the worst-hit in the Middle East. In recent weeks, it has suffered a second steep rise in the number of cases.

The first death in Iran from Covid-19 was recorded on 22 January, according to lists and medical records that have been passed to the BBC. This was almost a month before the first official case of coronavirus was reported there.

«

unique link to this extract


Why the pandemic is so bad in America • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:

»

A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.

Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually it found its way to the Huanan seafood market, and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID‑19 pandemic had begun.

…Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border.

«

TL;DR: inevitability and incompetence.
unique link to this extract


The man whose science fiction keeps turning into our shitty cyberpunk reality • OneZero

Brian Merchant interviews Tim Maughan, whose SF book “Infinite Detail” was called the best of 2019 by The Guardian:

»

Tim Maughan: Before Infinite Detail came out, I was at a workshop incubator thing in Brooklyn. And there was a couple of kids there — this is before Infinite Detail — and they said, “Oh, yeah, we’re making a smart trash can.”

And I had started working on the recycling bit in Intimate Detail. I had written that chapter at the time, and my heart just fell. I said, “Right, so what is that? How does it work?” And they were like, “Well, it’s got a screen on the side. And when you put a can in, it thanks you for putting it in.” And I said, “Well, what’s the point? Why?” And they said, “Well, because it would encourage kids to recycle more. It’d be like little video games they can play.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, is it really that hard to get kids to recycle? I don’t feel like it is, but, anyway, whatever.”

I said, “What’s your business model?” He said, “Well, hopefully, we’ll get cities invested in it.” And I said, “Yeah, but…” And I knew exactly what his answer was going to be, and I kept pushing him on it. He said, “Well, yeah, eventually we do want to monetize the data it collects. Yeah, eventually we could be monitoring who’s walking past from the IDs on the phone or the footfall.” And that’s it. People are not even interested in fixing these problems. They’re interested in finding “solutions.” They’re finding other trajectories, other vectors to get data collection, that’s it because they literally have all been told data is new oil, and they fully fucking bought into this.

«

I finished Infinite Detail yesterday. It’s the flip side of Shockwave Rider, by another (sadly deceased) British SF writer John Brunner: Infinite Detail is a hyperconnected world that becomes disconnected, Shockwave Rider is a hyperconnected world that becomes overconnected. Container ships play a large part in this interview, and it’s fascinating. Recommended. (Infinite Detail might also feel familiar to anyone who has read John Lanchester’s The Wall.)
unique link to this extract


‘This is a new phase’: Europe shifts tactics to limit tech’s power • The New York Times

Adam Satariano:

»

European Union leaders are pursuing a new law to make it illegal for Amazon and Apple to give their own products preferential treatment over those of rivals that are sold on their online stores.

In Britain, officials are drawing up a law to force Facebook to make its services work more easily with rival social networks, and to push Google to share some search data with smaller competitors.

And in Germany, authorities are debating a rule that would let regulators essentially halt certain business practices at the tech companies during an antitrust investigation.

Europe’s lawmakers and regulators … are drafting at least half a dozen new laws and regulations to aim at the heart of how those tech companies’ businesses work.

…“We have crossed a line,” said Andrea Coscelli, the head of Britain’s antitrust agency, the Competition and Markets Authority, which published a 400-plus-page report this month accusing Google and Facebook of anticompetitive behavior in online advertising. “Something needs to happen sooner rather than later, and it needs to be done in an intelligent way.”

Mr. Coscelli said the lack of specific tech regulation reminded him of the lax oversight of banks before the 2008 financial crisis. Regulators should treat the tech giants more like formerly state-owned enterprises such as British Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, he said.

«

unique link to this extract


I tried to live without the tech giants. It was impossible • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

»

When I blocked Google, the entire internet slowed down for me, because almost every site I visited was using Google to supply its fonts, run its ads, track its users, or determine if its users were humans or bots. While blocking Google, I couldn’t sign into the data storage service Dropbox because the site thought I wasn’t a real person. Uber and Lyft stopped working for me, because they were both dependent on Google Maps for navigating the world. I discovered that Google Maps had a de facto monopoly on online maps. Even Google’s longtime critic Yelp used it to tell computer users where businesses could be found.

I came to think of Amazon and Google as the providers of the very infrastructure of the internet, so embedded in the architecture of the digital world that even their competitors had to rely on their services.

Facebook, Apple and Microsoft came with their own challenges. While Facebook was less debilitating to block, I missed Instagram (which Facebook owns) terribly, and I stopped getting news from my social circle, like the birth of a good friend’s child. “I just assume that if I post something on Facebook, everyone will know about it,” she told me when I called her weeks later to congratulate her. I tried out an alternative called Mastodon, but a social network devoid of any of your friends isn’t much fun.

Apple was hard to leave because I had two Apple computers and an iPhone, so I wound up getting some radical new hardware in order to keep accessing the internet and making phone calls.

«

Cannot escape any of them.
unique link to this extract


Pixel 4A review: Google’s smartphone camera for $349 • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

The specs are a good news / worrisome news kind situation. The good news is that Google has put in enough RAM (6GB) to run Android well and put in enough storage (128GB) to accommodate most users without hassle or annoyance. That 128GB of storage is especially notable because it’s double what the base iPhone SE offers — meaning an equivalent iPhone SE with 128GB of storage is $100 more than the Pixel 4A.

That all seems great, but the iPhone SE has a ridiculous advantage over the Pixel: its processor. Where Apple can use its economies of scale to put the fastest mobile processor ever made into its low-cost iPhone SE, Google has to make do with the options Qualcomm offers at this price point. That means the Pixel 4A uses the midtier Snapdragon 730G, which is the worrisome news.

It is fast enough for day-to-day use. Out of the box (and after Android gets over the usual first-day sync chug), it’s the kind of phone I would be happy to use every day. It takes a beat longer to open apps, and there’s some wonky scrolling in Chrome and Twitter, but it’s not slow.

What I worry more about is longevity. Android phones have a reputation for not lasting as many years as iPhones — and the processor is a big part of that. There’s just not as much headroom for future software complexity here. Google promises at least three years of software updates and says last year’s Pixel 3A (which also has a lower-tier processor) is aging well, but it’s something to think about. I would say if you want a phone that’s sure to last four or more years, look elsewhere.

«

Good camera, doubts about the longevity of the support.
unique link to this extract


Trump says US should get slice of TikTok sale price • WSJ

Alex Leary:

»

President Trump confirmed Monday he is open to a deal in which Microsoft or another US company buys the video-sharing app TikTok, but said the government should receive payment for clearing a purchase.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Trump described the Sunday conversation he had with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella over the company’s interest in buying TikTok from its Chinese owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.

“I said, ’Look it can’t be controlled for security reasons by China,’” Mr. Trump said. “Here’s the deal, I don’t mind whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else—a big company, a secure company, a very American company buy it.”

But the president, who on Friday floated banning TikTok, also said there would be conditions to a sale and he did not see how only part of the company could be purchased. Microsoft has said it is interested in buying TikTok operations in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, leaving other parts of the business in Chinese ownership.

“I did say that ‘If you buy it…a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.’ Right now they don’t have any rights unless we give it to them.”

«

I’m hoping for “Microsoft to Trump: Drop Dead”. There’s absolutely no legal basis on which Microsoft or TikTok would owe any part of a sale price to the US government. This is just another part of the ongoing Trump corruption; except he now says it out loud, in front of cameras, rather than on phone calls or in the Oval Office. It could only be worse if one of Trump’s children or in-laws was buying or selling the company, and was getting a kickback. If by some opposite of a miracle Trump gets back in, that’ll be what you’ll see: it’ll be as corrupt as Zimbabwe.

Also, Microsoft can’t buy all of the company outside China: there are elements which are non-US and are expected to remain under control of ByteDance.
unique link to this extract


Worldwide tablet PC market grew 26% in Q2 2020 • Canalys

»

Worldwide tablet shipments hit 37.5 million units in Q2 2020, a remarkable 26% year-on-year increase. Tablets, part of the PC market, had faltered in recent years, but demand in Q2 2020 was boosted by consumers and businesses wanting affordable access to basic computing power and larger screens to facilitate remote work, learning and leisure. Vendors were able to ramp up production to meet this renewed demand. At the same time, retailers and carriers in various markets provided financial incentives on devices and data to encourage tablet purchases.

«

Pretty dramatic: 37.5m for the quarter, of which Apple (predictably enough) had just under 40%. There still isn’t a tablet market beyond Apple and Samsung, which together have nearly 60% of the whole market.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1365: social media’s failing news diet, Twitter ejects David Duke, TikTok races Trump, is GPT-3 going to screw up comments?, and more


Algorithmic repetition: but how does Twitter’s function when fed a simalucrum of Trump’s tweets? CC-licensed photo by Ethan Miller 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Americans who mainly get their news on social media are less engaged, less knowledgeable • Pew Research Center

Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, J. Baxter Oliphant and Elisa Shearer:

»

The rise of social media has changed the information landscape in myriad ways, including the manner in which many Americans keep up with current events. In fact, social media is now among the most common pathways where people – particularly young adults – get their political news.

A new Pew Research Center analysis of surveys conducted between October 2019 and June 2020 finds that those who rely most on social media for political news stand apart from other news consumers in a number of ways. These U.S. adults, for instance, tend to be less likely than other news consumers to closely follow major news stories, such as the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 presidential election. And, perhaps tied to that, this group also tends to be less knowledgeable about these topics.

«

Also tend to be under 30, and have heard more conspiracy junk. Not investigated but likely: they’re more politically polarised than people who don’t use social media so much.

Would be great if there were comparative studies for other countries.
unique link to this extract


Relevant content: Twitter’s algorithm does not seem to silence conservatives • The Economist

»

The [US] president says that “social media platforms totally silence conservatives’ voices.” However, a study by The Economist finds the opposite. Twitter’s feed used to show people the latest posts from accounts they followed, but in 2016 it launched an algorithm to serve “relevant” tweets to users, even if they were days old and from unfamiliar accounts. We compared the two systems, and found that the recommendation engine appears to reward inflammatory language and outlandish claims.

Our experiment began in June 2019, when we created a clone of Mr Trump’s profile. This bot used his picture, biography and location, and followed the same people as he did. We used it to re-post some of the president’s old tweets over several weeks, so that the algorithm could learn what our Trump clone cared about.

Then from September to December we checked every ten minutes if Mr Trump had tweeted something. If so, three things happened. First, our clone repeated the tweet. Second, we checked its Twitter feed and recorded the first 24 posts served by the algorithm. Finally, we simulated what a chronological feed might have looked like, using the 24 most recent tweets by accounts that Mr Trump follows.

Our algorithmic and chronological feeds differed starkly. Nearly half the recommended tweets were from users whom Mr Trump does not follow. Using sentiment-analysis tools to extract feelings from text, we found the average curated tweet was more emotive, on every scale, than its chronological equivalent—and more so than Mr Trump’s own posts, too.

«

The algorithm is picking for engagement – and emotive words do that. There’s plenty of solid academic research on this. Suitable material for a book, really.
unique link to this extract


Twitter bans former KKK leader David Duke • The Washington Post

Jacob Bogage and Eugene Scott:

»

Avowed white supremacist David Duke was permanently banned from Twitter for repeated violations of the social media platform’s rules on hate speech.

The former Ku Klux Klan leader and one-time Louisiana legislator’s most recent tweets included a link to an interview he conducted with Holocaust denier Germar Rudolf. Other posts promised to expose the “systemic racism lie,” as well as the “incitement of violence against white people” by Jewish-owned media. He also shared misinformation about the danger and spread of the coronavirus.

“People who refuse the mask are the real heroes,” he tweeted.

Duke, who most recently is known for endorsing President Trump, was banned in June, which Twitter confirmed Thursday evening. He also was banned by YouTube that month.

Twitter and other social media platforms have been under fire for years for lax regulations on racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic commentary from users, especially those who self-identify with hate groups.

«

Good to see Twitter focusing on the aim of reducing its user numbers to the nominal 250 million. Though seriously, this is long overdue. A platform that removed Graham Linehan (for his noise over the trans issue) before it removed David Duke needs to think about its priorities.

Obvious question: is Duke (still) on Facebook? Does he say the same things?
unique link to this extract


Three people have been charged for Twitter’s huge hack, and a Florida teen is in jail • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

»

Early on July 31st, the FBI, IRS, US Secret Service, and Florida law enforcement placed 17-year-old Graham Clark of Tampa, Florida, under arrest. He’s accused of being the “mastermind” behind the biggest security and privacy breach in Twitter’s history, one that took over the accounts of President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Kanye West, Apple, and more to perpetrate a huge bitcoin scam on July 15th.

Apparently, he wasn’t alone: shortly after the Tampa arrest was revealed and after we published this story, two more individuals were formally charged by the US Department of Justice: 22-year-old Nima Fazeli in Orlando and 19-year-old Mason Sheppard in the UK. They go by the hacker aliases “Rolex” and “Chaewon,” respectively, according to the DOJ. The FBI says that two individuals in total are in custody. An unidentified minor in California also admitted to federal agents that they’d helped Chaewon sell access to Twitter accounts.

But according to an affidavit released late Friday, authorities have probable cause to believe Clark, the Tampa teen, was the one who got access to Twitter’s internal tools and directly carried out the scam. Specifically, he allegedly convinced a Twitter employee that he worked in the Twitter IT department and tricked that employee into giving him the credentials.

«

As others have observed, if this is what some script kiddies with plausible social engineering can do, what might state actors who are really working on it be up to? We know the Saudis infiltrated the company. What else might be happening?
unique link to this extract


AI-generated text is the scariest deepfake of all • WIRED

Renee DiResta:

»

undetectable textfakes—masked as regular chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like—have the potential to be far more subtle, far more prevalent, and far more sinister. The ability to manufacture a majority opinion, or create a fake-commenter arms race—with minimal potential for detection—would enable sophisticated, extensive influence campaigns. Pervasive generated text has the potential to warp our social communication ecosystem: algorithmically generated content receives algorithmically generated responses, which feeds into algorithmically mediated curation systems that surface information based on engagement.

Our trust in each other is fragmenting, and polarization is increasingly prevalent. As synthetic media of all types—text, video, photo, and audio—increases in prevalence, and as detection becomes more of a challenge, we will find it increasingly difficult to trust the content that we see. It may not be so simple to adapt, as we did to Photoshop, by using social pressure to moderate the extent of these tools’ use and accepting that the media surrounding us is not quite as it seems. This time around, we’ll also have to learn to be much more critical consumers of online content, evaluating the substance on its merits rather than its prevalence.

«

I hardly ever disagree with DiResta, but I just don’t see why, this many years into social media and our knowledge of bots, anyone takes “comments on Facebook/Twitter” as a metric of anything. It’s so easy to fake – even before GPT-3 – that there’s no value in trusting it.
unique link to this extract


One flight is worth a thousand Big Macs: digesting these hard facts killed my appetite for flying • The Correspondent

Jelmer Mommers:

»

We really do have to acknowledge the hard truth. If we return to flying as we did before Covid-19, we’ll never bring global warming under control.

The urgent need to fly less may feel painful. It spells the end for a certain way of living. Since the ending of the second world war, flying has been associated with shifting boundaries, meeting people, new experiences and the discovery of new cultures. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain. He was right.

In flight over planet earth, holidaymakers, business people, academics would all sit together, paging through the same magazines, listening to announcements from the cockpit. It was sweet. 

But looking at the facts about flying and climate, we can arrive at only one conclusion. To keep the planet liveable, those of us who fly need to do it much less, or stop altogether.

Flying is a small but growing source of emissions. At just over 2% of global CO₂ emissions, it currently represents only a limited share of the total. But prior to coronavirus, this expanding industry was forecast to account for a fifth of all emissions by 2050. 

…Perhaps you have already decided to give up meat for the sake of the climate: did you know that one return flight from London to New York is as bad for the climate as consuming almost 1,000 Big Macs? Have you swapped old lightbulbs at home for environmentally friendly LEDs? The CO₂ you will save over five years is cancelled out by one medium-haul flight, from, say, Berlin to Lisbon.

I’m not saying these things to suggest that vegetarianism and energy saving are pointless. On the contrary, these are effective steps to lower your carbon footprint. But here’s that uncomfortable truth again: if we continue to fly, we will undo the progress made in many other areas.

«

(Via John Naughton)
unique link to this extract


Why America is afraid of TikTok • The Atlantic

Michael Schuman:

»

Companies that operate in China, both local and foreign, repeatedly get into [political] scuffles with thin-skinned officials over perceived political incorrectness. But this type of interference has heightened scrutiny of TikTok’s decisions about content. All social-media outfits have challenges with content moderation, but with TikTok, critics make the assumption that choices about what should and should not be on the app are made to please Chinese censors. TikTok, of course, denies this, and insists that decisions are made by the U.S. team.

The inevitable controversies have ensued anyway. Critics accused TikTok of scrubbing videos supportive of prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong, whom Beijing considers “terrorists,” and of locking the account of a teen who shared a video critical of the Chinese government’s ill-treatment of the country’s minority Uighur community. (The company has denied both accusations. In the former case, an investigation by BuzzFeed News backed up TikTok’s assertion, and in the latter one, TikTok said the video was not the reason the account was frozen, and it apologized and reinstated the user’s access.) In the U.S., following the death of George Floyd, TikTok came under fire for allegedly suppressing videos related to Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality and racism. The company has said that this was a temporary technical glitch.

Facing perceived threats from China, Congress and the White House have tended to confront them with measures American officials previously preferred to avoid—restrictions on businesses and people.

«

unique link to this extract


US to widen action against Chinese tech groups beyond TikTok • Financial Times

Aime Williams and Hannah Murphy:

»

The Trump administration has vowed to “take action” in a matter of days against Chinese software companies that it perceives as a risk to security, in a sign that Washington is set to broaden its offensive beyond the video-sharing app TikTok.

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is racing to save the app’s US operations with a plea to the administration to allow it to sell the unit to Microsoft.

Comments from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Sunday suggested that additional action against a wider range of Chinese technology companies would follow.

“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more . . . are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist party, their national security apparatus,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News. 

“President Trump has said ‘enough’ and we’re going to fix it and so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist party.”

«

Pompeo is an pompous enabling windbag, but questioning what data gets collected is a start. Maybe someone will question the data that gets collected about all Americans and sold to data brokers, who can then sell it to intermediaries run by Chinese companies who could be beholden to the CCP in just the same way. If there’s a leak, water will flow.
unique link to this extract


Apple leaks reveal upcoming product launch dates • Seeking Alpha

SA Editor Yoel Minkoff:

»

It’s going to be a busy fall season for Apple, according to well-known leakers iHacktu Pro and Komiya, who published the launch dates for every upcoming company product.

The late 2020 updates will begin on August 19 with a new iMac, AirPods Studio, HomePod 2 and HomePod Mini, followed by an event on September 8 that will unveil the iPhone 12 line, iPad, Apple Watch Series 6 and AirTags.

Another special event on October 27 will show off the Apple Silicon MacBook and MacBook Pro 13″, iPad Pro and Apple TV 4K.

There’s also big expectations for a renewed AirPower charging mat, and smaller wireless charger AirPower Mini, as well as Apple Glass – the reported augmented reality smart glasses.

«

Just had to go over the edge with the “Apple Glass” thing at the end. (No. Way.) The dates and products otherwise sound… possible?, although the 19th is a Wednesday – Apple prefers Tuesdays. The August thing sounds a bit ambitious, but the October date for the MacBook (back with a bang, sorry, ARM, sorry, Apple Silicon chip) and similar MacBook Pro 13in all makes sense. Anyway, you could put the dates in your diary and see how they fare.

Related: Apple confirmed last week that the iPhone won’t arrive in September (though everyone expects it to be announced in September). Last times that’s happened was the iPhone XR in 2018, the iPhone X in 2017 (didn’t arrive until November), and before that the iPhone 4S in 2011 (launched October).
unique link to this extract


Apple vs Google: a tale of two ecosystems • Android Authority

Chruv Bhutani isn’t thrilled by the lack of integration between Android, Google, Chromebooks and WearOS, especially compared to Apple’s cross-device integration:

»

It could be argued that by licensing out its software and operating system Google is just an enabler for a broader ecosystem running on its platform, and that’s fair enough but you don’t invest a fortune, buy two smartphone companies, and a wearable manufacturer without having serious hardware ambitions. Between the Chrome OS running Pixelbooks, the Pixel series of phones, and Nest hardware, Google has been trying to create a semblance of an alternative to Apple’s hegemony, and with it comes the responsibility to do it right.

However, operating in silos with each product acting as a distinct vertical just hasn’t worked to Google’s advantage. This lack of a unified focus and unwillingness to listen to what the market demands was epitomized by the launch of the flawed Pixel 4 and the subsequent departure of key executives. This is all the more astonishing in a time when even the notoriously stubborn Apple is willing to budge and add widgets to iPhones and iPad.

Look, I get that Google can’t or doesn’t want to miff its partner relations. That doesn’t mean gimping your own hardware is acceptable, however.

«

unique link to this extract


Alphabet grows up – but Google’s problems are bigger than just the antitrust case • The Economist

»

These days employees are being told to access sensitive documents only if they “need to know”. Some staff talk of creating if not a labour union, then at least a group to defend their interests.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd many Googlers criticised their top management for doing too little, too late to make the company more diverse; after a couple of weeks the firm vowed to raise the “leadership representation of underrepresented groups” by 30% over the next five years. In June more than 2,000 employees signed an open letter to Mr Pichai demanding that the company stop selling its technology to police forces across America.

Over the past few weeks things have seemed to calm down internally. But the respite may be superficial. Many workers are keeping their mouths shut for fear of being laid off, one Googler reports. Few relish the thought of losing a cushy job in a recession. Activists now shun the firm’s communication tools and organise elsewhere online.

All this fuels murmurings and speculation, both inside and outside Alphabet, over whether Mr Pichai is the right person for the job. Some Google executives and engineers describe him as “too checked out” and his leadership as “uninspired”. He is also accused of excessive risk aversion. “I’ve never shied away from making big bets and following my instincts,” Mr Pichai insists. But it is hard to argue that he has shown the vision of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

«

He’s hardly in the position of Bezos, building from the ground up, or Nadella, trying to fix a very broken company. All he can easily do is screw things up; getting it right is harder.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1364: Qualcomm hints at iPhone 12 delay, antitrust hearings pour out incriminating emails, kids v Covid, and more


Want to know why Apple blocks you buying Kindle content in the app? Blame Steve Jobs. CC-licensed photo by Robert Occhialini 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. Undelayed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Congress forced Silicon Valley to answer for its misdeeds. It was a glorious sight • The Guardian

Matt Stoller, who is a former Senate staffer and strong anti-monopolist:

»

I have reported on small and medium-sized businesses frightened to come forward with stories of how they are abused by counterfeiting or unfair fees by the goliaths. As one told me about his relationship to Amazon, “I’m a hostage.”

Fortunately, the voices of small businesspeople afraid of retaliation came through their elected leaders. “I pay 20% of my income to Uncle Sam in taxes, and 30% to Apple,” one member of Congress noted she heard from businesspeople. Representative Ken Buck, Republican from Colorado, talked about one of the few courageous businesspeople who testified openly months ago, the founder of PopSockets, who had been forced to pay $2m to Amazon just to get Amazon to stop allowing counterfeits of its items sold on the platform. Another Republican representative, Kelly Armstrong, went into the details of Google’s use of tracking to disadvantage its competitors in advertising, joined by Democrat Pramila Jayapal, who asked Google’s CEO why the corporation kept directing ad revenue to its own network of properties instead of sending ad traffic to the best available result.

Over and over, the CEOs had similar answers. I don’t know. I’ll get back to you. I’m not aware of that. Or long rambling attempts to deflect, followed by members of Congress cutting them off to get answers to crisp questions. I learned two things from the surprisingly wan responses of these powerful men. First, they had not had to deal with being asked for real answers about their business behavior for years, if ever, and so they were not ready to respond. And two, antitrust enforcers for the last 15 years, stretching back to the Bush and Obama administrations, bear massive culpability for the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of these corporations.

«

Stoller was one of the people in the Open Markets team at the New America Foundation (NAF). But in mid-2017, the Open Markets team wrote an article praising the EU for fining Google for breaking antitrust rules. Two days later, the Open Markets team were given two months to leave the NAF by its chief. The NAF had previously received more than $21m from the family foundation of Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO.
unique link to this extract


Dirty tricks and the 2020 election: lessons from the KGB • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan:

»

Oleg Kalugin, another KGB agent who lived in the US undercover, recounted in his book “Spymaster” how the KGB paid Americans to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. This tactic had the potential to inflame tensions in the US and give the Soviet-controlled press a negative story to tell Russians back home about their capitalist foe.
In the decades since, our lives have largely moved online — and so have Russia’s attempts at disinformation and meddling in US affairs.

In groundbreaking work from the Atlantic Council and the online investigations company Graphika, researchers showed how a suspected Russian group has been distributing forged documents online over the past few years. These efforts included a fake letter purporting to be from a US senator and another letter designed to look like it came from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The same Russian group is believed to have been behind a fake tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio claiming that a purported British spy agency planned to derail the campaigns of Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The fake tweet was picked up and falsely reported as real by RT, a Russian state-controlled news outlet. There’s no evidence of coordination between RT and the Russian group that promoted the fake tweet but RT did not issue a correction.

The internet hasn’t just made it easier for Russia to create forgeries, it’s also helped in their ability to distribute documents, forged or stolen.

«

Hurrah for social media! At least, if you’re a spy trying to destabilise countries that insist on letting them run rampant. Not sure why this is so hard for some folk to grasp.
unique link to this extract


Apple emails reveal internal debate on Right to Repair • iFixit

Kyle Wiens:

»

These internal discussions reveal that what looks like Apple’s united front against Right to Repair is really an internal debate, rife with uncertainty.

The New York Times editorial in favor of Right to Repair last April set off a fire alarm inside Apple’s public relations team. When Binyamin Appelbaum reached out to research the issue, Apple’s VP of communications said in an internal email that “We should get him on the phone with [Apple VP Greg] Joz [Joswiak] or [Senior VP] Phil [Schiller].” That spawned an instant debate. “The larger issue is that our strategy around all of this is unclear. Right now we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth and no one is clear on where we’re headed.”

The emails show the high profile of Right to Repair inside Apple as leaders debate how to respond to a request for comment on an upcoming column. “The piece is using [Senator] Warren’s new right to repair for agriculture to talk about the broader right to repair effort and plans to use Apple as a symbol in that fight. We’re meeting with everyone shortly about the overall strategy and then I’ll connect with [Greg ‘Joz’ Joswiak].” The email goes on, “Appelbaum has, of course, talked with iFixIt [sic] and others.” They’re right about that!

The conversation resulted in a set of talking points that Kaiann Drance, VP of Marketing, talked through with Appelbaum. Afterwards, Apple PR wrote, “Kaiann did a great job and emphasized the need for a thoughtful approach to repair policy because of how important it is to balance customer safety with access to more convenient repairs.”

«

unique link to this extract


Emails detail Amazon’s plan to crush a startup rival with price cuts • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

Quidsi’s founders didn’t want to sell their company, but Amazon’s diaper price war was starting to hurt Quidsi. Growth was slowing, and Quidsi was having trouble raising additional capital to continue expanding.

On September 14, the founders of Quidsi flew to Seattle to meet with Amazon and discuss a possible acquisition. As Quidsi’s founders were sitting in a meeting with Amazon brass, Amazon hit Quidsi in the gut. It announced a new program called “Amazon Mom” that offered free Prime service and an additional 30-percent discount on diapers if users signed up to get them through Amazon’s monthly “subscribe and save” program. This was a larger discount than Amazon offered on most other Subscribe and Save items.

This put Quidsi in an untenable situation, as [author of The Everything Store, Brad] Stone writes:

»

That month, Diapers.com listed a case of Pampers at $45; Amazon priced it at $39, and Amazon Mom customers with Subscribe and Save could get a case for less than $30. At one point, Quidsi executives took what they knew about shipping rates, factored in Proctor and Gamble’s wholesale prices, and calculated that Amazon was on track to lose $100m over three months in the diapers category alone. Amazon’s losses may have actually been even larger. During Wednesday’s hearing, Scanlon said that internal documents obtained by the committee showed Amazon losing $200m in a single month from diaper products.

«

Amazon knew it was bleeding Quidsi dry. An internal email later in September discussed the price cuts Quidsi was forced to make to compete with the new Amazon Mom discounts. “They expect to lose lots of money in the next few yrs,” wrote executive Peter Krawiec. “This will make it worse.”

«

unique link to this extract


Read Steve Jobs’ emails about why you can’t buy digital books in Amazon’s apps • The Verge

Jay Peters:

»

Two sets of emails discuss the decisions that, to this day, keep iPhone and iPad users from buying digital books in Amazon’s apps. (You have to use a web browser as a workaround.)

In one email from November 2010, marketing chief Phil Schiller wrote to Jobs, internet services lead Eddy Cue, and product marketing head Greg Joswiak about how Amazon was marketing the Kindle mobile app at the time as a way to easily read Kindle books across both an iPhone and an Android device. Jobs said, “[i]t’s time for Amazon to decide to use our payment mechanism or bow out [of the App Store],” and followed that with “[a]nd I think it’s time to begin applying this uniformly except for existing subscriptions (but applying it for new ones).”

In another conversation, Cue laid out a draft of new subscription policies for apps on the App Store on February 6th, 2011, days before Apple officially announced the new policies.

Jobs said: “I think this is all pretty simple — iBooks is going to be the only bookstore on iOS devices. We need to hold our heads high. One can read books bought elsewhere, just not buy/rent/subscribe from iOS without paying us, which we acknowledge is prohibitive for many things.”

«

unique link to this extract


Documents show Apple gave Amazon special treatment to get Prime Video into App Store • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

»

During a hearing before the House antitrust subcommittee on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook testified that “we apply the rules to all developers evenly” when it comes to the App Store. But documents revealed by the subcommittee’s investigation show Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue offered Amazon a unique deal in 2016: Apple would only take a 15% fee on subscriptions that signed up through the app, compared to the standard 30% that most developers must hand over.

An email from Cue to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos lists the terms negotiated:

That meeting took place in 2016, and at the time, Bezos said he was waiting for “acceptable business terms” before launching the Prime Video app on Apple’s platforms. Pressed for whether the terms may have included a reduction in the 30% App Store cut, Bezos told The Verge’s Nilay Patel that “private business discussions should stay private.”

«

That hearing sure has turned up some great content.
unique link to this extract


Children COVID carriers: researchers find coronavirus-infected children are major carriers, further complicating the school-reopening debate • Fortune

Katherine Dunn:

»

In a study of children under five who show mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, those kids were found to contain higher concentrations of the virus compared to older children, teens and adults, according to researchers at a Chicago pediatric hospital and Northwestern University.

The findings come as parents, educators and policymakers around the world grapple with the question of whether it’s safe to reopen day-care centers and schools in the coming weeks.

The study, which was released Thursday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, did not test the transmission rate of children—but does raise the prospect that children could be just as, or even more, prone to COVID infection and transmission than adults, although symptoms in the vast majority of children are comparably milder, the researchers found.

“One of the things that’s come up in the whole school reopening discussion, is: since kids are less sick, is it because they have less of the virus?,” said Taylor Heald-Sargent, the lead author and a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“And our data does not support that,” she told Fortune. As a result, “we can’t assume that kids aren’t able to spread the virus.”

«

But but but: what proportion of children under five show mild to moderate symptoms? How liable are they to infection? That’s the key question that remains unanswered.
unique link to this extract


Telegram files EU antitrust complaint against Apple’s App Store • Financial Times

Javier Espinosa:

»

In a complaint to EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager, Telegram, which has more than 400m users, said Apple must “allow users to have the opportunity of downloading software outside of the App Store”.

In June, Ms Vestager announced two antitrust investigations into Apple, one of which concerned the App Store. Apple’s conflicts with developers over the rules of the App Store have also escalated recently.

Both Spotify and Rakuten have previously complained to the EU that the app store represents a monopoly power, given that developers have to accept Apple’s terms, including a 30% commission on in-app purchases, in order to reach the hundreds of millions of people who use iPhones.

Apple’s App Store fees across the world are estimated to generate more than $1bn for the company each month.

In its complaint, Telegram took issue with Apple’s argument that the App Store commission keeps it running.

In a post this week, Mr Durov said: “Every quarter, Apple receives billions of dollars from third-party apps. Meanwhile, the expenses required to host and review these apps are in the tens of millions, not billions of dollars. We know that because we at Telegram host and review more public content than the App Store ever will.”

«

unique link to this extract


Google’s $2.1bn Fitbit deal faces EU antitrust probe: sources • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

Alphabet Inc unit Google this month offered not to use Fitbit’s health data to help it target ads in an attempt to address EU antitrust concerns. The opening of a full-scale investigation suggests that this is not sufficient.

The deal, announced last November, would see Google compete with market leader Apple and Samsung in the fitness-tracking and smart-watch market, alongside others including Huawei and Xiaomi.

The European Commission, which will launch the probe following the end of its preliminary review on Aug. 4, is expected to make use of the four-month long investigation to explore in depth the use of data in healthcare, one of the people said.

«

What happens to Fitbit in the meantime? Does Google slip a bit of money under the door to keep it going? The next quarterlies are on 5 August, so those will be something to watch. (In the quarter to April it lost $20m on sales of $188m, selling 2.2m devices for a lower price than the year before. It’s got $251m of cash on hand, down from $334m in December (ie down $83m). Things aren’t looking good.
unique link to this extract


It looks like Apple’s iPhone 12 release date is definitely delayed • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Qualcomm’s Chief Financial Officer Akash Palkhiwala talked to Reuters about the chipmaker’s guidance for the September quarter. The exec explained that a delay of a flagship phone next quarter would impact its bottom line of the period.

“We’re seeing a partial impact from the delay of a flagship phone launch. And so what we’ve seen is a slight delay that pushes some of the units out from the September quarter to the December quarter for us,” he said.

Palkhiwala would not explicitly name the iPhone 12 series, but only a device like the iPhone could alter earnings guidance in such a manner that Qualcomm would have to address it.

Qualcomm is expected to provide the 5G modem for all the upcoming iPhone 12 models, and that’s why a delay would impact its bottom line. The exec said that Qualcomm would provide 5G components to all major smartphone makers, including the customer facing a delayed launch. Again, the CFO did not name Apple. “Suffice to say, I think going forward we expect to be selling to all of them,” Palkhiwala said.

Assuming all of this information is accurate, and Apple will launch the iPhone 12 series in October, we’d still expect the company to unveil the handsets on time, during a mid-September press event.

«

I had been thinking that Qualcomm doesn’t make Apple’s CPU, but if it’s making the modems that makes more sense. Although “launch in September, but wait a few weeks for it to go on sale” isn’t that much different from normal, is it.
unique link to this extract


Huawei trumps Samsung for first time in worldwide smartphone market in Q2 2020 • Canalys

»

Huawei shipped more smartphones worldwide than any other vendor for the first time in Q2 2020. It marks the first quarter in nine years that a company other than Samsung or Apple has led the market. Huawei shipped 55.8m devices, down 5% year on year. But second-placed Samsung shipped 53.7m smartphones, a 30% fall against Q2 2019.

Huawei is still subject to US government restrictions, which have stifled its business outside of mainland China. Its overseas shipments fell 27% in Q2. But it has grown to dominate its domestic market, boosting its Chinese shipments by 8% in Q2, and it now sells over 70% of its smartphones in mainland China. China has emerged strongest from the coronavirus pandemic, with factories reopened, economic development continuing and tight controls on new outbreaks.

“This is a remarkable result that few people would have predicted a year ago,” said Canalys senior analyst Ben Stanton. “If it wasn’t for COVID-19, it wouldn’t have happened. Huawei has taken full advantage of the Chinese economic recovery to reignite its smartphone business. Samsung has a very small presence in China, with less than 1% market share, and has seen its core markets, such as Brazil, India, the United States and Europe, ravaged by outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns.”

«

All down to China.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1363: how Amazon screws up, Instagram’s fear of Zuck’s wrath, life on TheirTube, masks break facial recognition, and more


Main Square at Disney World, Florida, in busier times: find out what it’s like in a pandemic CC-licensed photo by Wally Gobetz 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. Not under oath. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

(The on-off-you’re-muted-out-of-time inquisition of the four tech chiefs by the US Congress finished too late to be included here. We’ll see what there is worth including tomorrow.)

Disney World during the pandemic is extremely weird • The Atlantic

Graeme Wood went there at the height of the… emptiness:

»

You emerge from the tunnel into a town square, the first of several themed sub-parks of the Magic Kingdom, and the only one that is compulsory, because you must pass through it to reach the others. It is designed to look like small-town Middle America roughly 100 years ago, during the heyday of sarsaparillas and the Model T. The square has a train station, then one shop-lined avenue leading to the rest of the park. This sub-park, called Main Street, U.S.A., is unique in that it has no rides—nothing to do at all, really, other than buy merchandise with your MagicBand and, in normal times, enjoy the first of many interactions with beloved cartoon characters, or, rather, sweaty adults entombed in costumes.

Main Street, U.S.A., is fairly crowded and mirthful compared with a small town in America a century ago, when the country had only about a third of the population it has today. But compared with a normal, pandemic-free day, it is desolate and somber, like a small town hit hard by scarlet fever and bad news about local boys off fighting in the Great War. The music still plays, but every 10 minutes a voice interrupts to instruct us all to “please wear a face covering. Wash your hands often and thoroughly. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and maintain physical distancing.” This memento mori is especially grim when it is played between “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

The characters keep their distance. In fact, I do not think I saw a proper Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, or Jiminy Cricket during my entire visit. On the balconies of certain buildings, occasionally a princess dances around and calls out to visitors. And at intervals, a parade of characters passes—but preceding it there are surgical-masked, uniformed cast members, clearing the streets like Secret Service agents to make sure the princesses have a path forward and perhaps to intercept any overly enthusiastic children who want to run up to give them a hug. Among the most American elements of Disney magic is that it lets kids imagine princesses as accessible and pure-hearted, rather than as aristocrats worried they might be coughed on by proles. That particular magical spell is temporarily broken.

«

Many, many wonderful lines. (Via the wonderful Emma Beddington.)
unique link to this extract


Amazon’s enforcement failures leave open a back door to banned goods—some sold and shipped by Amazon Itself • The Markup

Annie Gilbertson and Jon Keegan:

»

Amazon bans pill presses used to make prescription drugs. They’re included among 38 pages of third-party seller rules and prohibitions for its U.S. marketplace.

Yet an investigation by The Markup found that Amazon fails to properly enforce that list, allowing third-party sellers to put up and sell banned items.

Alongside its third-party marketplace, Amazon sells products to consumers directly, and The Markup found it was also selling banned items itself, revealing cracks in the largely automated purchasing system that feeds its massive product catalog.

We found nearly 100 listings for products that the company bans under its categories of drugs, theft, spying, weapons and other dangerous items, a virtual back alley where mostly third-party sellers peddle prohibited goods, some of which are used for illicit and potentially criminal activities.

The Markup filled a shopping cart with a bounty of banned items: marijuana bongs, “dab kits” used to inhale cannabis concentrates, “crackers” that can be used to get high on nitrous oxide, and compounds that reviews showed were used as injectable drugs.

We found two pill presses and a die used to shape tablets into a Transformers logo, which is among the characters that have been found imprinted on club drugs such as ecstasy. We found listings for prohibited tools for picking locks and jimmying open car doors. And we found AR-15 gun parts and accessories that Amazon specifically bans.

«

unique link to this extract


Teaching GPT-3 to identify nonsense • Arram Sabeti

:

»

One of the trickiest things about GPT-3 is that you can prove that it knows how to do something, but you can’t prove that it doesn’t, since a slightly different prompt can get much better results.

Nick Cammarata of OpenAI responded to Kevin’s post on Twitter: “it’s all about the prelude before the conversation. You need to tell it what the AI is and is not capable. It’s not trying to be right, it’s trying to complete what it thinks the AI would do :)”

Nick changed Kevin’s prompt to add a prelude saying: ‘This is a conversation between a human and a brilliant AI. If a question is “normal” the AI answers it. If the question is “nonsense” the AI says “yo be real”’ and added two examples of nonsense questions…

«

This gets pretty scary. Once you have an AI that knows when you’re trying to fool it and responds by telling you to “be real”, the Turing Test is all but passed.
unique link to this extract


TheirTube

»

Theirtube is a Youtube filter bubble simulator that provides a look into how videos are recommended on other people’s YouTube. Users can experience how the YouTube home page would look for six different personas.

Each persona simulates the viewing environment of real Youtube users who experienced being inside a recommendation bubble through recreating a Youtube account with a similar viewing history. TheirTube shows how YouTube’s recommendations can drastically shape someone’s experience on the platform and, as a result, shape their worldview. It is part of the Mozilla Creative Media Awards 2020 — art and advocacy project for examining AI’s effect on media and truth, developed by Tomo Kihara.

How does it work?

Each of these TheirTube personas is informed by interviews with real YouTube users who experienced similar recommendation bubbles. Six YouTube accounts were created in order to simulate the interviewees’ experiences. These accounts subscribe to the channels that the interviewees followed, and watches videos from these channels to reproduce a similar viewing history and a recommendation bubble.

«

The choices are Fruitarian, “Prepper”, “Liberal”, “Conservative”, conspiracist, climate denier. The context of “liberal” and “conservative” is the American political one, so “liberal” means “somewhere in the middle of the British Conservative Party” for British readers.
unique link to this extract


Google offers refunds after smart glasses stop working • BBC News

»

The Canadian company, recently purchased by Google, says its Focals glasses will cease functioning on Friday.

From then, owners will not be able to use “any features” of the glasses, or connect to the companion app. But the company has also said it will automatically refund all customers. It promised to send the purchase price back to the original payment method, and to contact those customers whose refunds it could not process.

At the end of June, North announced it was being acquired by Google, and would not release a planned second-generation device. It also said it would “wind down” its first generation smart glasses, released last year.

Customers found out that meant the smart glasses would be rendered “dumb” through a statement published on the company’s website and by email.

The Focals glasses, however, come with prescription lenses as an option, meaning they can function as everyday prescription eyewear. The bulky frames, housing a laser, battery, and other kit will no longer do anything that regular spectacles cannot do.

Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight, said the pulling of features from cloud-powered hardware is not uncommon – and something that has happened to him before. “If you want to be an early adopter and have some fun new tech that an ambitious start-up has created, there’s always a risk that they won’t be able to make the business plan stack up,” he warned.

«

unique link to this extract


Hong Kong students arrested under national security law • BBC News

»

Four students have been arrested in Hong Kong in the first police operation to enforce China’s new national security law for the territory.

The four were detained for “inciting secession” on social media after the new law began on 1 July, police said. A pro-independence group said those arrested included its former leader, Tony Chung.

Beijing’s controversial new law criminalises subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces.
Previous arrests under the new law have been made for slogans and banners at protests.

Critics say China’s new law erodes Hong Kong’s freedoms. But Beijing has dismissed the criticism, saying that the law is necessary to stop the type of pro-democracy protests seen in Hong Kong during much of 2019.

Three men and a woman aged between 16 and 21 were arrested on suspicion of organising and inciting secession, police said.

“Our sources and investigation show that the group recently announced on social media to set up [sic] an organisation that advocates Hong Kong independence,” said Li Kwai-wah from the new national security unit inside Hong Kong police.

«

China gets the quiet crackdown underway. Are these people ever going to be seen in public again? And will the UK and US (and other countries) extend HK citizens some sort of immigration waiver? That would be the way to undermine this Chinese takeover.
unique link to this extract


Face masks are breaking facial recognition algorithms, says new government study • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Wearing face masks that adequately cover the mouth and nose causes the error rate of some of the most widely used facial recognition algorithms to spike to between 5% and 50 percent, a study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has found. Black masks were more likely to cause errors than blue masks, and the more of the nose covered by the mask, the harder the algorithms found it to identify the face.

“With the arrival of the pandemic, we need to understand how face recognition technology deals with masked faces,” said Mei Ngan, an author of the report and NIST computer scientist. “We have begun by focusing on how an algorithm developed before the pandemic might be affected by subjects wearing face masks. Later this summer, we plan to test the accuracy of algorithms that were intentionally developed with masked faces in mind.”

Facial recognition algorithms such as those tested by NIST work by measuring the distances between features in a target’s face. Masks reduce the accuracy of these algorithms by removing most of these features, although some still remain. This is slightly different to how facial recognition works on iPhones, for example, which use depth sensors for extra security, ensuring that the algorithms can’t be fooled by showing the camera a picture (a danger that is not present in the scenarios NIST is concerned with).

«

Comment on Twitter: “next week there’ll be a ‘viral challenge’ to post a photo of yourself with and without a mask.”
unique link to this extract


New disinformation resembles 2016 Russian meddling: FireEye report • Business Insider

Jeff Elder:

»

Bad actors are hacking media websites to post fraudulent stories, creating fake journalist personas, and spreading anti-US disinformation, researchers from FireEye warned Wednesday. The tactics are reminiscent of Russian meddling around the 2016 election – but are significantly more sophisticated, researchers say.

“We have good reason to believe these are Russians,” says John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a research division of FireEye. “The elections could be their goal.”

Researchers say disinformation campaigns in 2016 also originated in Eastern Europe and targeted an English-language audience with narratives that disparaged the US. The campaigns then moved West and took root in the US in time to hit social media before the 2016 election, and a hacking group tied to Russian military intelligence ultimately gained access to the Democratic National Committee email servers. And this campaign now taking place in Eastern Europe looks very similar, Hultquist says.

The new campaigns originated in the same way and are propagating the same kind of content, but hacking media websites and creating convincing journalist personas is a new level of skill, according to Hultquist.

“This is not just troll farm stuff,” he said.

«

unique link to this extract


You Download the App and it Doesn’t Work

»

“There are many things that they [Hey] could do to make the app work within the rules that we have. We would love for them to do that.

“You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store.”

–Phil Schiller

«

There follows a long list of apps where you download it and it doesn’t work. Apple’s position here is so clearly compromised that the only sensible thing to get out from under a ton of antitrust complaints is to remove this daft rule. Because there’s no way it’s going to be able to enforce it on everyone.
unique link to this extract


‘Instagram can hurt us’: Mark Zuckerberg emails outline plan to neutralize competitors • The Verge

Casey Newton and Nilay Patel:

»

nIn late February 2012, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emailed his chief financial officer, David Ebersman, to float the idea of buying smaller competitors, including Instagram and Path. “These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale the could be very disruptive to us,” he wrote. “Given that we think our own valuation is fairly aggressive and that we’re vulnerable in mobile, I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them. What do you think?”

Ebersman was skeptical. “All the research I have seen is that most deals fail to create the value expected by the acquirer,” he wrote back. “I would ask you to find a compelling elucidation of what you are trying to accomplish.” Ebersman went on to list four potential reasons to buy companies and his thoughts on each: neutralizing a competitor, acquiring talent, integrating products to improve the Facebook service, and “other.”

It’s a combination of neutralizing a competitor and improving Facebook, Zuckerberg said in a reply. “There are network effect around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”

Zuckerberg continued: “One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.”

«

Released as part of the US Antitrust Committee hearings – as is a text conversation between Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, and Matt Cohler, an investor, about whether to accept Zuck’s offer to buy Instagram. “We’ll never escape the wrath of Mark.” I reiterate: put a ceiling on the size of social networks. It’s the only way to control them.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1362: how Google search got so closed, US lets off Twitter Saudi insiders, marathon masks, Trump tweets deleted, and more


Want a better picture from your webcam? Camo, a British app, lets you use your iPhone camera for Mac apps CC-licensed photo by Brett Renfer 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. Clearly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s top search result? Surprise! It’s Google • The Markup

Adrianne Jeffries and Leon Yin:

»

A trending search in our data for “myocardial infarction” shows how Google has piled up its products at the top. It returned:

• Google’s dictionary definition
• A “people also ask” box that expanded to answer related questions without leaving the search results page
• A “knowledge panel,” which is an abridged encyclopedia entry with various links
• And a “related conditions” carousel leading to various new Google searches for other diseases

All of these appeared before search results by WebMD, Harvard University, and Medscape. In fact, a user would have to scroll nearly halfway down the page—about 42 percent—before reaching the first “organic” result in that search.

Google’s decision to place its products above competitors’ and to present “answers” on the search page has led to lawsuits and regulatory fines. A number of websites said it killed their revenues—and their companies. Founders of both innovative startups and companies that had been around for a decade or more told The Markup that once Google started placing its product first, they didn’t stand a chance.  

Travel research firm Skift wrote in November that the entire online travel industry is suffering. “The fact that Google is leveraging its dominance as a search engine into taking market share away from travel competitors is no longer even debatable.”

«

There’s a supporting article about how they did their research. It feels as though Google has decided not to leave it to chance any more: keep people on the site to show them ads.

Do read through to the point where it shows that Google doesn’t always (often?) offer the best prices for flights, either. That’s the danger of shopping monopolies: you might not see what is being hidden from you.
unique link to this extract


Ex-Twitter workers win US case dismissal over Saudi hacks • Bloomberg via MSN

Clare Roth and Peter Blumberg:

»

The US sought to dismiss charges it brought late last year against two former Twitter Inc. employees and a Saudi national for allegedly helping Riyadh spy on dissidents who use the social network.

Prosecutors in San Francisco on Tuesday asked for a judge’s permission to drop the charges. The two-page filing doesn’t offer a reason but specifies that the dismissal would be “without prejudice,” meaning the government could file new charges.

The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, were accused of feeding the Saudi government information about Twitter users critical of it. They were recruited by a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi, who lives in the kingdom and has worked for the royal family’s social media company, according to prosecutors.

All three were charged with acting as illegal foreign agents. Of the three, only Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, is in custody. He has pleaded not guilty.

Twitter, the Saudi Embassy, a lawyer for Abouammo and the U.S. attorney in San Francisco didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment on the prosecutor’s request for dismissal.

«

What possible reason would there be to withdraw these charges? The suspicion is that this is some corrupt deal sewn up by the US DOJ with Saudi Arabia. Four years ago, that wouldn’t have been countenanced. Now, it’s the first suggestion.
unique link to this extract


The rise of synthetic audio deepfakes • Nisos Security

Robert Volkert, VP Threat Investigations and Dev Badlu, VP Technology at Nisos:

»

Audio deepfakes are the new frontier for business compromise schemes and are becoming more common pathways for criminals to deceptively gain access to corporate funds. Nisos recently investigated and obtained an original attempted deepfake synthetic audio used in a fraud attempt against a technology company. The deepfake took the form of a voicemail message from the company’s purported CEO, asking an employee to call back to “finalize an urgent business deal.” The recipient immediately thought it suspicious and did not contact the number, instead referring it to their legal department, and as a result the attack was not successful.

Nisos investigated the phone number the would-be attacker used and determined it was a VOIP service with no owner registration information. It was likely simply acquired and used as a “burner” for this fraud attempt only. While there was no actual voicemail message associated with the number, we made no attempt for live contact with the owner of the phone number for legal reasons.

…The most famous use of deep fake synthetic audio technology in criminal fraud was a September 2019 incident involving a British energy company. The criminals reportedly used voice-mimicking software to imitate the British executive’s speech and trick his subordinate into sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a secret account.

The managing director of this company, believing his boss was on the phone, followed orders to wire more than $240,000 to an account in Hungary.1

«

So the threat from audio deepfakes is really to business rather than to politics. So far, anyhow.
unique link to this extract


Making news and enlightening audiences: BBC’s flagship news show in the pandemic • Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Sarah Sands is leaving as editor of the BBC’s Today programme after three years, and last December was facing a boycott by government ministers who thought they were going to teach the BBC a lesson; they wouldn’t appear on the show:

»

if there is a problem with the show, it’s down to me.

And having no ministers is a problem.  

I said I would not beg [for forgiveness, because the programme wasn’t at fault], and I didn’t. But I did go to Downing Street to see if we could find a way through. Serious issues were on the agenda – floods, a big decision on HS2, Huawei. The Today programme seemed the right place to talk about them. Downing Street wondered what was in it for the government.

On January 29, Chinese nationals at a hotel in York [were] reported to have fallen ill, the first coronavirus cases on British soil. 

Over the following month, coverage of the crisis increased by the day. We talked to doctors, to epidemiologists, WHO officials, to the brightest minds we could find. They came on willingly and shared everything they knew. Everyone seemed happy to answer intelligent questions for an intelligent audience. Everyone, except the government.    

And something really interested happened during those weeks.

«

What if the pandemic hadn’t intervened? I think the result would have been the same. The government would discover that it needed to be heard more than it could use social media.
unique link to this extract


Facebook’s ‘red team’ hacks its own AI programs • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

»

Deepfake technology is becoming easier to access and has been used for targeted harassment. When Canton’s group formed last year, researchers had begun to publish ideas for how to automatically filter out deepfakes. But he found some results suspicious. “There was no way to measure progress,” he says. “Some people were reporting 99% accuracy, and we were like ‘That is not true.’”

Facebook’s AI red team launched a project called the Deepfakes Detection Challenge to spur advances in detecting AI-generated videos. It paid 4,000 actors to star in videos featuring a variety of genders, skin tones, and ages. After Facebook engineers turned some of the clips into deepfakes by swapping people’s faces around, developers were challenged to create software that could spot the simulacra.

The results, released last month, show that the best algorithm could spot deepfakes not in Facebook’s collection only 65% of the time. That suggests Facebook isn’t likely to be able to reliably detect deepfakes soon. “It’s a really hard problem, and it’s not solved,” Canton says.

Canton’s team is now examining the robustness of Facebook’s misinformation detectors and political ad classifiers. “We’re trying to think very broadly about the pressing problems in the upcoming elections,” he says.

Most companies using AI in their business don’t have to worry as Facebook does about being accused of skewing a presidential election. But Ram Shankar Siva Kumar, who works on AI security at Microsoft, says they should still worry about people messing with their AI models. He contributed to a paper published in March that found 22 of 25 companies queried did not secure their AI systems at all. “The bulk of security analysts are still wrapping their head around machine learning,” he says. “Phishing and malware on the box is still their main thing.”

«

unique link to this extract


Camo – Use your phone as a pro webcam, free • Reincubate

»

Camo:

Look amazing on video calls. Use your iPhone or iPad as a pro webcam and get powerful effects and adjustments for Zoom, Meet, and more.

«

A British software company with the answer to Joanna Stern’s (and everyone else’s) prayers: use your iPhone as the webcam while you use your Mac. (As recommended on Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)

There are a growing number of iPhone/iPad + Mac app pairings – Duet is another, to make an iPad work as a second screen for a Mac. Others?
unique link to this extract


Their businesses went virtual. Then Apple wanted a cut • The New York Times

Jack Nicas and David McCabe:

»

ClassPass built its business on helping people book exercise classes at local gyms. So when the pandemic forced gyms across the United States to close, the company shifted to virtual classes.

Then ClassPass received a concerning message from Apple. Because the classes it sold on its iPhone app were now virtual, Apple said it was entitled to 30% of the sales, up from no fee previously, according to a person close to ClassPass who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Apple. The iPhone maker said it was merely enforcing a decade-old rule.

Airbnb experienced similar demands from Apple after it began an “online experiences” business that offered virtual cooking classes, meditation sessions and drag-queen shows, augmenting the in-person experiences it started selling in 2016, according to two people familiar with the issues.

Airbnb discussed Apple’s demands with House lawmakers’ offices that are investigating how Apple controls its App Store, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Those lawmakers are now considering Apple’s efforts to collect a commission from Airbnb and ClassPass as part of their yearlong antitrust inquiry into the biggest tech companies, according to a person with knowledge of their investigation.

…With gyms shut down, ClassPass dropped its typical commission on virtual classes, passing along 100% of sales to gyms, the person close to the company said. That meant Apple would have taken its cut from hundreds of struggling independent fitness centers, yoga studios and boxing gyms.

Apple said that with Airbnb and ClassPass, it was not trying to generate revenue — though that is a side effect — but instead was trying to enforce a rule that has been in place since it first published its app guidelines in 2010.

«

That’s going to make for an interesting session when Tim Cook gets grilled by the US House Antitrust Committee.
unique link to this extract


Sen. Josh Hawley wants to strip legal protections from sites with targeted ads • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

Sen. Josh Hawley (Republican, Missouri) has introduced the latest of several bills designed to weaken a key online legal shield. The Behavioral Advertising Decisions Are Downgrading Services (or BAD ADS) Act would remove protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for large web services that display ads based on “personal traits of the user” or a user’s previous online behavior. This is defined as “behavioral advertising” and does not include targeting based on users’ locations or the content of the site they’re on.

Section 230 shields websites from legal liability for user-created content. Unlike several previous bills, including ones sponsored by Hawley, the BAD ADS Act doesn’t appear to address any specific critiques of Section 230. It’s seemingly an anti-targeted ads bill that threatens companies with the loss of an unrelated legal protection instead of monetary fines. Hawley has previously introduced a bill that would create a Do Not Call list equivalent for targeted advertising, and he’s proposed banning “addictive” design features like endless scrolling on social networking apps.

In a statement, Hawley said that “manipulative ads are not what Congress had in mind when passing Section 230,” although he did not elaborate on a relationship between the two topics.

«

The trouble with Hawley’s plan is that stripping s230 would leave such companies liable for absolutely everything, so they’d just block everything except the most vanilla content, and certainly anything that might get them co-sued. It’s a self-defeating move: why wouldn’t someone sue Hawley for things he tweets or posts on Facebook causing some sort of harm?

Here’s my suggestion (pass it on): put a ceiling on the size of social networks. 100 million, 200 million? The specific danger comes from size, not from particularly what they do. Let the right-wing nutjobs be on Gab or Parler. Let the others be on Mastodon, Counter.social, whatever. But put the limit on how many they can reach.
unique link to this extract


Two Donald Trump tweets deleted by Twitter overnight • HillReporter.com

Steph Bazzle:

»

Twitter has started acting when a tweet from Donald Trump violates their site rules. Over Monday night, two tweets from the president were removed. Unlike some of the recent responses from the site, this time they didn’t include a statement about the content. However, the tweets in question are archived, and the content may be a clue.

According to Factbase, one of the tweets was about COVID-19. It was a retweet, and while the link to the article is no longer visible, the text describes the claims of one Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. “I have treated over 350 patients [using hydroxychloroquine] with 100% success.”

Here’s the problem with this claim, as documented by the New York Times back in April (when Zelenko was already claiming 350 cases cured). Zelenko’s claims aren’t backed by evidence, the officials in his New York village, Kiryas Joel, have asked him to stop, saying that he’s exaggerating the outbreak in their community and inflating numbers by falsifying the number who became ill, and the numbers don’t reflect what scientific studies continue to find. Further, without sufficient testing, any suggestion for treating pre-symptomatic patients becomes moot.

Trump’s second deleted tweet was also a retweet. This one linked to an article by The Post Millenial. It claims that Garrett Foster, a protester killed in Austin, shot at a car five times before a driver fired back, killing him. That article has since been updated to include the following correction [saying that Foster, who was killed, was not the first shooter].

«

Interesting that we haven’t heard any screaming from Trump about this. (Related: his dim son – OK, Junior, I have to narrow it down – had his Twitter access limited for tweeting nonsense about hydroxychloroquine. So of course the right-wingers claimed it was election interference. Night, day, follow.)
unique link to this extract


A doctor ran 22 miles with a face mask on to debunk a ridiculous myth • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Face mask protesters have made up several silly reasons to oppose the use of the simplest tool possible to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Some oppose the idea of being told what to do, suggesting face masks are about complying with the government. They are not. It’s about curbing the spread of the virus. Others claim the use of face masks is actually harmful, claiming they can reduce the flow of oxygen. That’s also false. Again, the use of face covers can reduce the spread of a pathogen, protecting both the person wearing the mask and others.

A few weeks ago, a doctor put on six surgical masks at the same time to prove it wouldn’t affect his breathing. He wore a pulse oximeter, a device that measures oxygen saturation, as proof. Unsurprisingly, the medical gadget confirmed his blood oxygen levels stayed within normal parameters. Another doctor performed an even more audacious task to dispel the hypoxia myth; he ran 22 miles and monitored his oxygen with the same type of device. The conclusion was identical: face masks do not reduce the flow of oxygen, even if you’re running and need a much higher intake of air to supply the increased oxygen needs of the muscles.

Dr. Tom Lawton from the Bradford Royal Infirmary in Yorkshire, England decided to run with a face mask on to fight misinformation and the spread of fake news about face masks. His oxygen levels never fell below 98% during the course of his run — any value of over 94% is considered normal.

«

unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1361: the trouble with ‘hygiene theatre’, an AI overhang?, Surgisphere’s suspect surgeon, Twitter’s woeful security, and more


Blank no longer: Garmin has “solved” a ransomware attack, but won’t say how CC-licensed photo by otama on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. The joke edition. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The scourge of hygiene theatre • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson on why scrubbing tables won’t save you (because you’re not actually going to catch it from a “fomite”, or virus-laden gunk on a surface):

»

hygiene theatre builds a false sense of security, which can ironically lead to more infections. Many bars, indoor restaurants, and gyms, where patrons are huffing and puffing one another’s stale air, shouldn’t be open at all. They should be shut down and bailed out by the government until the pandemic is under control. No amount of soap and bleach changes this calculation.

Instead, many of these establishments are boasting about their cleaning practices while inviting strangers into unventilated indoor spaces to share one another’s microbial exhalations. This logic is warped. It completely misrepresents the nature of an airborne threat. It’s as if an oceanside town stalked by a frenzy of ravenous sharks urged people to return to the beach by saying, We care about your health and safety, so we’ve reinforced the boardwalk with concrete. Lovely. Now people can sturdily walk into the ocean and be separated from their limbs.

By funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals, we lose focus on the more common modes of COVID-19 transmission and the most crucial policies to stop this plague. “My point is not to relax, but rather to focus on what matters and what works,” Goldman said. “Masks, social distancing, and moving activities outdoors. That’s it. That’s how we protect ourselves. That’s how we beat this thing.”

«

Hygiene theatre being the followup to security theatre, as seen in airports everywhere after September 2001.
unique link to this extract


Are we in an AI overhang? • LessWrong 2.0

Andy Jones:

»

An overhang is when you have had the ability to build transformative AI for quite some time, but you haven’t because no-one’s realised it’s possible. Then someone does and surprise! It’s a lot more capable than everyone expected.

I am worried we’re in an overhang right now. I think we right now have the ability to build an orders-of-magnitude more powerful system than we already have, and I think GPT-3 is the trigger for 100x-larger projects at Google and Facebook and the like, with timelines measured in months.

GPT-3 is the first AI system that has obvious, immediate, transformative economic value. While much hay has been made about how much more expensive it is than a typical AI research project, in the wider context of megacorp investment it is insignificant.

GPT-3 has been estimated to cost $5m in compute to train, and – looking at the author list and OpenAI’s overall size – maybe another $10m in labour, on the outside.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft all each spend ~$20bn/year on R&D and another ~$20bn each on capital expenditure. Very roughly it totals to ~$100bn/year. So dropping $1bn or more on scaling GPT up by another factor of 100x is entirely plausible right now. All that’s necessary is that tech executives stop thinking of NLP as cutesy blue-sky research and start thinking in terms of quarters-till-profitability.

«

If GPT-3 has really only cost $5m, then I’d expect all of Google, Amazon and Microsoft (and even Apple) to have much better AI by now. But they don’t. It’s a sort of anti-existential proof, because they all have good reasons to build such systems.
unique link to this extract


The doctor behind the disputed Covid data • The New York Times

Ellen Gabler and Roni Caryn Rabin on the peculiar case of Sapan Desai, the man behind Surgisphere, the company behind the nonexistent Covid-19 case data in the cases testing the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine:

»

Over the next five years [from 2006], his performance and a pattern of behaviour at the North Carolina hospital worried colleagues, according to physicians who worked with him there.

In interviews, Drs. Olcese, Mani Daneshmand, Dawn Elfenbein and 10 others — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media or feared retribution from their employers or Duke — said there were broad concerns inside the surgery department about Dr. Desai.

The doctors, many of whom were also residents, said they could not trust information he provided about patients’ medical conditions or test results. Several doctors said it became standard practice to double check anything Dr. Desai said about a patient, such as how the person had fared overnight or whether a test had been ordered.

Several former colleagues said that often he did not follow through on directives about treating patients, and that when he was questioned about it, he sometimes passed blame or offered implausible explanations.

In one instance, Dr. Desai did not respond to pages from nurses during an overnight shift while on call, recalled Dr. Olcese. When she asked about the missed pages, he said he had been resuscitating an infant by performing a rare, complicated procedure — an incident the charge nurse said never occurred, according to Dr. Olcese and another doctor present for Dr. Desai’s explanation.

“He was essentially a giant roadblock that you had to work around,” said Dr. Olcese, now a neurocritical care doctor at Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. “You didn’t want him to bring you down with him.”

«

And a reminder, once more, that the Surgisphere fabulism was exposed not by the two peer-reviewed journals which published HCL articles, but by a journalist at The Guardian (Australia) puzzled by the fact that the papers cited more cases and deaths in Australia than had been recorded.

If that’s stopped a liar, that’s a good job done.
unique link to this extract


Google to keep employees home until summer 2021 amid coronavirus pandemic • WSJ

Rob Copeland:

»

The move will affect nearly all of the roughly 200,000 full-time and contract employees across Google parent Alphabet Inc, and is sure to pressure other technology giants that have slated staff to return as soon as January.

Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai made the decision himself last week after debate among Google Leads, an internal group of top executives that he chairs, according to a person familiar with the matter. A small number of Google staffers were notified later in the week, people familiar said.

Mr. Pichai was swayed in part by sympathy for employees with families to plan for uncertain school years that may involve at-home instruction, depending on geography. It also frees staff to sign full-year leases elsewhere if they choose to move.

“I know it hasn’t been easy,” Mr. Pichai wrote in a note to staff Monday, after The Wall Street Journal reported the impending extension. “I hope this will offer the flexibility you need to balance work with taking care of yourselves and your loved ones over the next 12 months.”

«

Feels reasonable; by this time next year I’d hope we’ll have a working vaccine that is rolling out on a wide scale. (Let’s come back and check, shall we?)
unique link to this extract


Twitter’s security woes included broad access to user accounts • Bloomberglaw

Jordan Robertson, Kartikay Mehrotra and Kurt Wagner:

»

Twitter’s oversight over the 1,500 workers who reset accounts, review user breaches and respond to potential content violations for the service’s 186 million daily users have been a source of recurring concern, the employees said. The breadth of personal data most of those workers could access is relatively limited — including such things as Internet Protocol addresses, email addresses and phone numbers — but it’s a starting point to snoop on or even hack an account, they said.

The controls were so porous that at one point in 2017 and 2018 some contractors made a kind of game out of creating bogus help-desk inquiries that allowed them to peek into celebrity accounts, including Beyonce’s, to track the stars’ personal data including their approximate locations gleaned from their devices’ IP addresses, two of the former employees said.

…According to the former security employees, Twitter management has often dragged its heels on upgrades to information security controls while prioritizing consumer products and features, a source of tension for many businesses.

Efforts to better govern Twitter’s user-support staff and contractors have also gotten short shrift, resulting in a workplace where too many people have access to too many powerful tools, the former employees said. Even with some basic tracking systems in place, contractors have found workarounds to explore details about former lovers, politicians, favorite brands and celebrities, they added.

«

This is such a mess. Twitter has clearly been a mess that nobody has been willing to clear up for years. The longer it goes on, the harder to clear up.
unique link to this extract


Coronavirus: Lewis Hamilton deletes vaccine conspiracy theory post • BBC News

Marianna Springfield:

»

Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton has issued a statement “clarifying his thoughts” and confirming he is not anti-vaccine after sharing a video linked to unfounded conspiracy theories about a coronavirus vaccination.

Hamilton originally shared the post about Bill Gates and vaccine trials on his Instagram story to his 18 million followers. It stayed up for 13 hours before he deleted it.

The F1 driver has now issued a statement on the same platform, explaining that he “hadn’t actually seen the comment attached” to the post in question, saying that he’s “only human”.

…He said he had not seen the comment attached to the video he shared and “has a lot of respect for the charity work Bill Gates does”.

He added: “I also want to be clear that I’m not against a vaccine and no doubt it will be important in the fight against coronavirus” – although he did express concerns about potential side effects and how a vaccine might be funded.

«

Perhaps a multi-millionaire who lives abroad in order to avoid tax might be able to help fund it? Then he couldn’t have any concerns about it.
unique link to this extract


Sick of AI engines scraping your pics for facial recognition? Here’s a way to Fawkes them right up • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

»

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Sand Lab have developed a technique for tweaking photos of people so that they sabotage facial-recognition systems.

…Fawkes consists of software that runs an algorithm designed to “cloak” photos so they mistrain facial recognition systems, rendering them ineffective at identifying the depicted person. These “cloaks,” which AI researchers refer to as perturbations, are claimed to be robust enough to survive subsequent blurring and image compression.

The paper [PDF], titled, “Fawkes: Protecting Privacy against Unauthorized Deep Learning Models,” is co-authored by Shawn Shan, Emily Wenger, Jiayun Zhang, Huiying Li, Haitao Zheng, and Ben Zhao, all with the University of Chicago.

“Our distortion or ‘cloaking’ algorithm takes the user’s photos and computes minimal perturbations that shift them significantly in the feature space of a facial recognition model (using real or synthetic images of a third party as a landmark),” the researchers explain in their paper. “Any facial recognition model trained using these images of the user learns an altered set of ‘features’ of what makes them look like them.”

«

Wonder how long it will take for this to be an option in smartphones. “Distort selfies” as a preference setting.
unique link to this extract


Pre-existing and de novo humoral immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in humans • bioRxiv

(A very big UK-based team of researchers):

»

Zoonotic introduction of novel coronaviruses is thought to occur in the absence of pre-existing immunity in the target human population. Using diverse assays for detection of antibodies reactive with the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein, we demonstrate the presence of pre-existing humoral immunity in uninfected and unexposed humans to the new coronavirus.

SARS-CoV-2 S-reactive antibodies were readily detectable by a sensitive flow cytometry-based method in SARS-CoV-2-uninfected individuals and were particularly prevalent in children and adolescents. These were predominantly of the IgG class and targeted the S2 subunit. In contrast, SARS-CoV-2 infection induced higher titres of SARS-CoV-2 S-reactive IgG antibodies, targeting both the S1 and S2 subunits, as well as concomitant IgM and IgA antibodies, lasting throughout the observation period of 6 weeks since symptoms onset.

«

If I’m reading this right, it says that children and teenagers have effective antibodies despite not having been exposed to the virus that causes Covid-19. That explains a lot of things, though it then offers up the puzzle of why that resistance diminishes with age, since you’d expect people to be continually exposed to various coronaviruses through their life.
unique link to this extract


Garmin obtains decryption key after ransomware attack • Sky News

Alexander Martin:

»

Last week, Garmin’s services were taken offline after hackers infected the company’s networks with a ransomware virus known as WastedLocker.

A number of the company’s services are operational again and the business has now confirmed the “cyber attack” for the first time, stating: “Affected systems are being restored and we expect to return to normal operation over the next few days.”

…Security sources who spoke to Sky News said WastedLocker is believed to be developed by Evil Corp, a hacking group based in Russia which was sanctioned by the US Treasury last December.

The sanctions mean that “US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions” with the cyber criminals, although the US Treasury did not respond to questions about whether the general prohibition applied in the circumstances of extortion.

Sources with knowledge of the Garmin incident who spoke to Sky News on the condition of anonymity said that the company – an American multinational which is publicly listed on the NASDAQ – did not directly make a payment to the hackers.

«

That last bit raises so many questions. Did a middleman carry the bag with the money? Or did someone crack the encryption for them (highly unlikely)? The bigger question is whether their paying the middleman breaches US sanctions. I’d guess that if Garmin is necessary enough to the US military, it’ll be decided that it doesn’t.

Dad joke: Q: where did the hackers go? A: I dunno, they ransomware.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1360: Intel faces the future, does Britain back Biden?, the Swede helping the Chinese smartphone biz, faster tests are better, and more


FBI? Yes, I’d like to report the death of the G4 Cube, 19 years ago. CC-licensed photo by Matt Thomas 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. Back to it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

20 years ago, Steve Jobs built the “coolest computer ever”—and it bombed • Ars Technica

Steven Levy:

»

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Power Mac G4 Cube, which debuted July 19, 2000. It also marks the 19th anniversary of Apple’s announcement that it was putting the Cube on ice. That’s not my joke—it’s Apple’s, straight from the headline of its July 3, 2001, press release that officially pulled the plug.

The idea of such a quick turnaround was nowhere in the mind of Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the eve of the product’s announcement at that summer 2000 Macworld Expo. I was reminded of this last week, as I listened to a cassette tape recorded 20 years prior, almost to the day. It documented a two-hour session with Jobs in Cupertino, California, shortly before the launch. The main reason he had summoned me to Apple’s headquarters was sitting under the cover of a dark sheet of fabric on the long table in the boardroom of One Infinite Loop.

“We have made the coolest computer ever,” he told me. “I guess I’ll just show it to you.”

He yanked off the fabric, exposing an 8-inch stump of transparent plastic with a block of electronics suspended inside. It looked less like a computer than a toaster born from an immaculate conception between Philip K. Dick and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (But the fingerprints were, of course, Jony Ive’s.) Alongside it were two speakers encased in Christmas-ornament-sized, glasslike spheres.

“The Cube,” Jobs said, in a stage whisper, hardly containing his excitement.

«

I remember talking to Fred Anderson, then Apple’s CFO, who was insistent that it was going to be popular with “prosumers” (consumers who want sorta-kinda professional quality but at consumer-ish prices). The Cube’s rapid failure persuaded me that there’s no viable market in targeting prosumers, and never will be.

It is to Jobs’s credit that he was so prepared to change course so quickly. But in July 2000, Apple was missing the boat on MP3s and CD burning. By July 2001, the iPod was a few months away and the Cube was ballast Apple didn’t need.
unique link to this extract


Exclusive: want Face ID on the Mac? macOS Big Sur suggests the TrueDepth camera is coming • 9to5Mac

:

»

We were able to find a new extension on macOS Big Sur beta 3 with codes intended to support “PearlCamera.” You may not remember, but this is the internal codename Apple uses for the TrueDepth camera and Face ID, which was first revealed with the iPhone X leaks in 2017.

Codes such as “FaceDetect” and “BioCapture” found within this extension confirms that Apple is preparing macOS to operate with Face ID, as these codes are similar to those used by iOS. We investigated and this Face ID extension was clearly built for macOS, and it’s not some remnant code from Catalyst technology.

However, the implementation is still in the early stages, so it might take some time before Apple announces a new Mac model with the TrueDepth camera to support Face ID.

Only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro currently feature biometric authentication through Touch ID integrated into the keyboard. Having Face ID on the Mac would bring even more convenience to unlocking the computer, and it would also fit perfectly on iMac, which doesn’t have a built-in keyboard. As Touch ID depends on the T2 security chip, it would be impractical for Apple to add it to a separate wireless keyboard.

«

Overdue, inasmuch as Windows machines have had it for quite a while. But likely another thing to make Apple Silicon computers attractive. Or maybe even the forthcoming Intel ones too.
unique link to this extract


Intel ‘stunning failure’ heralds end of era for US chip sector • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Ian King:

»

After Chief Executive Officer Bob Swan said Intel is considering outsourcing, the company’s shares slumped 16% on Friday, the most since March, when the stock market plummeted in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We view the roadmap missteps to be a stunning failure for a company once known for flawless execution, and could well represent the end of Intel’s computing dominance,” Chris Caso, an analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a research note on Friday.

Swan says where a semiconductor is made isn’t that important. However, domestic chip production has become a national priority for China, and some U.S. politicians and national-security experts consider sending this technical knowhow overseas to be a potentially dangerous mistake.

“We’ve seen how vulnerable we are,” John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican, said in June when U.S. lawmakers proposed an estimated $25bn in funding and tax credits to strengthen domestic semiconductor production.

Intel’s Xeon chips run computers and data centers that support the design of nuclear power stations, spacecraft and jets, while helping governments quickly understand intelligence and other crucial information.

Many of these processors are made at facilities in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. If Intel outsources this work, it would likely be done by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which focuses on production and is currently the world leader. It’s based in Hsinchu, one of the closest Taiwanese cities to China, which considers the Asian island a rogue province rather than an independent country.

«

Feels like a hinge moment in the chip business. TSMC becomes the most important manufacturer in the entire world. Diversification suddenly becomes more important than ever.
unique link to this extract


Microsoft’s Surface Duo looks like it’s ready to launch • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Microsoft has spent the past few weeks teasing the Surface Duo on Twitter, and it now looks like the dual-screen device is ready to launch. Microsoft’s new Android-powered device first appeared at the FCC earlier this week, and today it has shown up on the Bluetooth SIG certification page. Devices typically appear in FCC and Bluetooth listings just a few weeks away from launch.

Recent rumors had suggested the Surface Duo might appear in July, but it’s clear the device isn’t ready to launch this month. Instead, it looks increasingly likely that Microsoft will launch the Surface Duo in the coming weeks.

Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the company had originally planned to focus on the Surface Duo and dual-screen devices at Build earlier this year. These plans changed once it was clear Build would be held virtually due to the pandemic, and Microsoft also pushed back its Windows 10X dual-screen plans to far beyond 2020.

«

Have to say, the form factor makes far more sense than the foldables from Samsung and Huawei: you get a full-size screen (with the other screen folded back, facing out) and then a two-screen combo. It’s more honest about the foldable-ness than the others. Probably won’t sell many, but that’s about Microsoft’s position in the phone business more than comparative merit.
unique link to this extract


You won’t even hear it whispered in No 10, but they’re desperate for Joe Biden to beat Donald Trump • The Sunday Times

Tim Shipman:

»

Johnson’s China crisis will not disappear if Joe Biden, the former vice-president who leads in the polls, wins the top job. As Pompeo told MPs last week: “China is the only bipartisan issue we have in the States. It won’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Biden. The policy is the same.”

However, Biden will try to rein in Beijing’s international aggression using alliances and institutions, rather than Twitter. “They [senior Democrats] believe in going to the UN and working with allies,” a source said.

This appeals to Johnson. The only episode from his spell as foreign secretary about which he likes to boast is the building of a global coalition to kick out more than 150 Russian spies after the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.

Biden’s approach on trade could also take the sting from the dodgy-chicken debate, since he has signalled that he might revive Barack Obama’s plan to join the Pacific free trade area — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — which the UK had expressed a desire to join in June.

A Tory adviser said: “The assumption in Whitehall is that if Biden wins, we won’t need to do a bilateral trade deal because we might both end up in CPTPP. That is already committed to high standards of animal welfare. Some of the sting will be removed from those issues.”

«

unique link to this extract


Imint is the Swedish firm that gives Chinese smartphones an edge in video production • TechCrunch

Rita Liao:

»

The hyper-competitive nature of Chinese phone makers means they are easily sold on new technology that can help them stand out. The flipside is the intensity that comes with competition. The Chinese tech industry is both well-respected — and notorious — for its fast pace. Slow movers can be crushed in a matter of a few months.

“In some aspects, it’s very U.S.-like. It’s very straight to the point and very opportunistic,” [Imint CEO and founder Andreas] Lifvendahl reflected on his experience with Chinese clients. “You can get an offer even in the first or second meeting, like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, if you can show that this works in our next product launch, which is due in three months. Would you set up a contract now?’”

“That’s a good side,” he continued. “The drawback for a Swedish company is the demand they have on suppliers. They want us to go on-site and offer support, and that’s hard for a small Swedish company. So we need to be really efficient, making good tools and have good support systems.”

The fast pace also permeates into the phone makers’ development cycle, which is not always good for innovation, suggested Lifvendahl. They are reacting to market trends, not thinking ahead of the curve — what Apple excels in — or conducting adequate market research.

«

(Thanks Adewale Adetugbo for the link.)
unique link to this extract


Frequent, fast, and cheap is better than sensitive • Marginal REVOLUTION

Taylor Cowen:

»

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

…The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap is better at telling you whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but that’s what we want to know open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test.

«

You’d probably need some complicated maths to figure out quite how likely the test was to be right if you got a positive, a negative, and a negative. But the general principle – test often, not slowly – has to be the right one.
unique link to this extract


Fire and fawning • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway:

»

The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are scheduled to testify in front of the US House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Some thoughts…

Big tech has won before the hearing starts. Agreeing to let all four testify concurrently inhibits the committee’s ability to go deep on any one issue, and will leave the American public with a sentiment instead of a viewpoint on big tech, much less any conclusions (such as, that the Obama DOJ was asleep at the switch, and Instagram and Whatsapp should be divested). The Covid-inspired remote format dramatically lessens the likelihood of an unscripted moment that reveals something the American public didn’t previously know. Fabric softener for tough questioning is the deep pockets that keep members in power.

«

Some of the questions are good (“Your market capitalization per employee is thousands of times higher than that of other companies in your sectors. Do you think your companies contribute to income inequality?”) though quite a few focus too much on market capitalisation, which isn’t something the companies directly control; some mistake what market power companies have, or show that it’s not big – as in Apple, where the “Apple tax” on streaming services works out to a few% of total revenues. And Jeff Bezos’s “worth” isn’t money in the bank: it’s shares, which can go down as well as up. (Via John Naughton)
unique link to this extract


YouTube’s psychic wounds • Columbia Journalism Review

Nicholson Baker decided to try YouTube, and set up a brand new account on a new email address, chose an Elvis video to watch, and then some parakeets, and then:

»

I went back to my home screen, where the breaking news of the day, displayed as a row of smaller video thumbnails, was “Biden Talks ‘Presidential Leadership’ in Time of Coronavirus.” Biden says, “Just over a week ago, many of the pundits declared that this candidacy was dead. Now we’re very much alive.” A crowd cheers.

Then something oddly political happened. The next video that the algorithm gave me was a three-year-old monologue by Judge Jeanine Pirro, on Fox News, about why Hillary Clinton used a private email account for her government correspondence. Before it played, an ad came on from the Trump campaign, wanting me to take a survey. Then I got a second ad, for a newspaper with ultraconservative and Falun Gong connections called the Epoch Times: “Are you tired of the media spinning the truth and pushing false narratives?” Evidently YouTube, not knowing much about me yet, wrongly assumed that I was a member of the alt-right. Based on what? Where I live, in Maine, or that I like dancing-cockatoo videos? That I like Elvis? Maybe it was Elvis.

Judge Jeanine’s monologue was bitter and unpleasant. “Bill and Hillary Clinton are the Bonnie and Clyde of American politics,” she says. I clicked the “next” arrow. Now I was given fourteen minutes of Hillary Clinton testifying about Benghazi from 2015. Why?

«

Avoiding the news stuff turns out to be very tricky. Yet feasible.
unique link to this extract


Lenovo Flex 5G review: insane battery life, at a cost • Android Authority

Eric Zeman:

»

There’s no Intel inside. The Lenovo Flex 5G is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx mobile processor with eight Kryo 495 cores clocked at 2.84GHz. It features an Adreno 680 GPU, 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage. This system felt fast across the board, though its Geekbench 5 scores were only 721 for single-core and 2862 for multi-core.

Battery life is absolutely outstanding. The machine has a four-cell 60Wh lithium-polymer battery inside. Combined with the 8cx, it absolutely kills. Lenovo rates battery life at an astounding 24 hours. I couldn’t kill the battery over a period of several days. It lasts and lasts and lasts. That includes time spent surfing on 5G, which you’d expect to drain the battery right quick. The Lenovo Flex 5G has some of the best battery life we’ve tested.

«

Seems to me this is a hint of what Apple Silicon might be able to do. The A12Z, in the iPad Pro, is a 2.48GHz chip, and that knocks lots of Windows (and Mac) machines into a box. Ramp up the speed, add in a few cores, and you’ve still got something that will be faster and last all day.

Plus this Lenovo has 5G built in. Even 4G would be welcome to lots of people.
unique link to this extract


America’s looming primary-care crisis • The New Yorker

Clifford Marks:

»

Even before the pandemic, primary care was in crisis. Primary-care doctors were already among the most poorly compensated physicians in the country; for medical students burdened with debt, those smaller salaries lessened the specialty’s allure. Experts have long warned of a shortage of doctors providing foundational forms of outpatient care, especially in rural areas. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that more than fourteen thousand primary-care physicians were needed to eliminate existing shortages.

For this article, I spoke with more than twenty primary-care physicians, from New York City to rural Nebraska and suburban Colorado. They work in single-physician practices, in multi-specialty groups, or as part of hospital systems. Nearly all of them described dramatic declines in revenue. Many benefitted from the P.P.P. [government bailout money]; without it, some of their clinics might not have survived. All of the physicians expressed concern about how they would navigate the uncertainty ahead. “This is taking us down,” Jacqueline Fincher, an internist and the president of the American College of Physicians, told me. “We’re not going to have a vaccine and herd immunity for probably a year—so, is this sustainable for a year? The reality is, it’s probably not, certainly not for most small practices.” If many of them go out of business, the consequences for Americans’ health could be profound and enduring. What’s at stake is not just a pattern of health outcomes but the shape of the health-care system as a whole. The way that patients interact with their doctors and the path that American health care takes in the future may be about to shift.

«

America, land of concurrent looming crises.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified