Start Up No.981: hot v cool v Trump v AOC, AI v Alzheimer’s, the oven that knows what it’s cooking, Firefox kills Flash, and more


Recognise this place? Its average internet speed is faster than France, Canada or the UK. CC-licensed photo by mariusz kluzniak on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Still here? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hot Trump. Cool @aoc • Medium

Jeff Jarvis:

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I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of “hot” vs. “cool” media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?

…As TV became hotter [in McLuhan terms] — as it became high-definition — it found its man in Trump, who is as hot and unsubtle as a thermonuclear blast. Trump burns himself out with every appearance before crowds and cameras, never able to go far enough past his last performance — and it is a performance — to find a destination. He is destruction personified and that’s why he won, because his voters and believers yearn to destroy the institutions they do not trust, which is every institution we have today. Trump then represents the destruction of television itself. He’s so hot, he blew it up, ruining it for any candidate to follow, who cannot possibly top him on it. Kennedy was the first cool television politician. Obama was the last cool TV politician. Trump is the hot politician, the one who then took the medium’s every weakness and nuked it. TV amused itself to death.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not a candidate of television or radio or text because media — that is, journalists — completely missed her presence and success, didn’t cover her, and had to trip over each other to discover her long after voters had. How did voters discover her? How did she succeed? Social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube….

I think McLuhan’s analysis here would be straightforward: Social media are cool [media forms]. Twitter in particular is cool because it provides such low-fidelity and requires the world to fill in so much, not only in interpretation and empathy but also in distribution (sharing). And Ocasio-Cortez herself is cool in every definition.

…Yes, she shoots at her opponents, but like a sniper, always from her position, her platform.

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I found this a fascinating analysis. Like Jeff, I’ve tried for years to comprehend McLuhan’s declensions; this one makes it understandable. And I love the “sniper” line.
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Artificial intelligence can detect Alzheimer’s disease in brain scans six years before a diagnosis • UC San Francisco

Dana Smith:

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glucose PET scans are much more common and cheaper, especially in smaller health care facilities and developing countries, because they’re also used for cancer staging.

Radiologists have used these scans to try to detect Alzheimer’s by looking for reduced glucose levels across the brain, especially in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. However, because the disease is a slow progressive disorder, the changes in glucose are very subtle and so difficult to spot with the naked eye.

To solve this problem, Sohn applied a machine learning algorithm to PET scans to help diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s disease more reliably.

“This is an ideal application of deep learning because it is particularly strong at finding very subtle but diffuse processes. Human radiologists are really strong at identifying tiny focal finding like a brain tumor, but we struggle at detecting more slow, global changes,” says Sohn. “Given the strength of deep learning in this type of application, especially compared to humans, it seemed like a natural application.”

To train the algorithm, Sohn fed it images from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a massive public dataset of PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment or no disorder. Eventually, the algorithm began to learn on its own which features are important for predicting the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and which are not.

…The algorithm performed with flying colors. It correctly identified 92% of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98% in the second test set. What’s more, it made these correct predictions on average 75.8 months – a little more than six years – before the patient received their final diagnosis.

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Slightly scary. What do you do with a diagnosis like that?
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Whirlpool WLabs oven can detect your food and cook it properly • CNBC

Todd Haselton:

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A new countertop oven from Whirlpool’s WLabs can automatically detect the food you put in it, and cook it for the right time. It takes all of the guesswork out of cooking.

The oven was on display at CES last week where CNBC had a chance to see how it works. I tried to insert a bunch of fake asparagus in one demo and, in another, a tray of salmon. Sensors inside the oven were able to determine what I was trying to cook, and then proposed the right amount of cook time and temperature.

This is different than Amazon’s microwave, which knows how long to microwave certain foods, but can’t automatically detect what you’ve placed inside.

The oven can identify 50 different types of food using infrared sensors in the oven. For meat, a user inserts a probe into the filet so that the oven can cook it to your liking.

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Only $800! Why do it?
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Stop the presses: How a new publishing platform can help local news • Google blog

Jim Albrecht, product management director of search:

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Shouldn’t doing great editorial work be enough?

We think so, and that’s why the Google News Initiative has partnered with Automattic/WordPress and invested $1.2m in its effort to create Newspack: a fast, secure, low-cost publishing system tailor-made to the needs of small newsrooms. Other funders include the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Civil Media collectively contributing another $1m.

Journalists should be writing stories and covering their communities, not worrying about  designing websites, configuring CMSs, or building commerce systems. Their publishing platform should solve these problems for them. So while Newspack publishers will have access to all the plugins created by the WordPress developer community, the core product is not trying to be all things to all publishers. It is trying to help small publishers succeed by building best practices into the product while removing distractions that may divert scarce resources. We like to call it “an opinionated CMS:” it knows the right thing to do, even when you don’t.

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Good that it’s built on WordPress – but will it get the security updates that WordPress gets? Will Google try to inveigle itself in, by doing updates?
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Mozilla kills default support for Adobe Flash in Firefox 69 • Threatpost

Lindsay O’Donnell:

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Firefox 69 will force users to manually install Adobe Flash as the plugin inches toward end of life.

Mozilla is disabling default support for Adobe’s Flash Player plugin in the latest upcoming version of its FireFox browser, marking the latest step in end-of-life for the infamous plugin.

The disabled default support means that Firefox users will now be required to manually enable Adobe Flash in Mozilla’s latest browser version, Firefox 69. More importantly, the change signals another step toward the end of Flash in general, as Mozilla and other popular browsers push the plugin off the radar.

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Only 3.9% of sites use Flash now, compared to 28.5% in 2011. (Guessing that a big part of that fall is the rise in sites configured for mobile – where Flash isn’t installed.
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Fortnite skins are key to the future of global trade • Bloomberg

Shawn Donnan:

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Discussions about globalization—and its costs and benefits—often focus on physical goods such as steel beams, cars, or soybeans. The reality is that the integration of economies is increasingly a digital one that happens in invisible daily bursts—like the sessions in which far-flung armies of Fortnite players face off against each other on an imaginary island. “The digital economy is everywhere, and much of it is international without our even knowing it,” says Anupam Chander, a law professor and expert on digital trade at Georgetown University.

If we don’t always fully appreciate the scale of what’s going on, it’s because much of digital trade is not being captured in official statistics, says Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute, the consultant’s in-house think tank. In a report, Lund and her co-authors documented an explosion in global data flows that they argued generated $2.8 trillion in economic output in 2014 alone and was doing more to benefit the world economy than the stalling international trade in physical goods.

In some cases, the World Trade Organization pointed out in a report last year, the rapid propagation of digital technologies has contributed to a false picture of globalization in retreat as shipping containers filled with hardcovers and DVDs are replaced by e-book downloads and streaming music.

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I seem to recall that much the same was said about Second Life, and then World of Warcraft, and then EVE Online, but the general point is true – digital globalisation is changing things.
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Only nuclear energy can save the planet • WSJ

Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist:

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the consumption of fossil fuels is growing quickly as poorer countries climb out of poverty and increase their energy use. Improving energy efficiency can reduce some of the burden, but it’s not nearly enough to offset growing demand.

Any serious effort to decarbonize the world economy will require, then, a great deal more clean energy, on the order of 100 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, by our calculations—roughly equivalent to today’s entire annual fossil-fuel usage. A key variable is speed. To reach the target within three decades, the world would have to add about 3.3 trillion more kilowatt-hours of clean energy every year.

Solar and wind power alone can’t scale up fast enough to generate the vast amounts of electricity that will be needed by midcentury, especially as we convert car engines and the like from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources. Even Germany’s concerted recent effort to add renewables—the most ambitious national effort so far—was nowhere near fast enough. A global increase in renewables at a rate matching Germany’s peak success would add about 0.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity every year. That’s just over a fifth of the necessary 3.3 trillion annual target.

…So why isn’t everyone who is concerned about climate change getting behind nuclear power? Why isn’t the nuclear power industry in the U.S. and the world expanding to meet the rising demand for clean electricity? The key reason is that most countries’ policies are shaped not by hard facts but by long-standing and widely shared phobias about radiation.

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There’s one other point: they’re pretty slow to build. But it’s true. We need more of them.
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A first look at Twitter’s new beta app and its bid to remain ‘valuable and relevant’ • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez and Ingrid Lunden:

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During the first beta, participants will try out new conversation features which offer color-coded replies to differentiate between responses from the original poster of the tweet, those from people you follow, and those from people you don’t follow.

In a development build of the beta app, Haider showed us what this looked like, with the caveat that the color scheme being used has been intentionally made to be overly saturated – it will be dialed down when the features launch to testers.

When you click into a conversation thread, the beta app will also offer visual cues to help you better find the parts of the thread that are of interest to you.

One way it’s doing so is by highlighting the replies in a thread that were written by people you follow on Twitter. Another change is that the person who posted the original tweet will also have their own replies in the thread highlighted.

In the build Haider showed us, replies from people she followed were shown in green, those from non-followers were blue, and her own replies were blue.

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May also get rid of likes (maybe) and add a “status” field such as availability, location, whether you’re online “as on IM”, says the story – perhaps oblivious to the fact that Twitter was started with the intent of being an SMS equivalent of the IM status field.
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Madagascar’s fast internet fuels outsourcing boom • Quartz Africa

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There are now 233 BPO [business process outsourcing] companies in Madagascar (up from just a handful in 2005, mostly in the capital Antananarivo, employing between 10,000 and 15,000 people (Morocco, the market leader, has 70,000). The reasons companies are flocking to Madagascar is a combination of cost and quality.

With salaries starting at $130 a month (nearly three times the minimum wage) Lalatiana Le Goff, director general at Vivetic, the oldest BPO operator in Madagascar and one of the largest with 1,400 employees, says that Madagascar is 50% cheaper than Morocco with similar levels of quality. “The Malagasies are diligent and have a real desire to learn,” she says. They also have a natural empathy, which, combined with the right training, makes them perfectly suited to handle disgruntled customers.

Then there is the language. The level of French is very good, and customers appreciate Malagasy French. “The tone is softer and slower [than in the Maghreb]; some people have an accent but it’s mild and hard to place,” says Ludovic d’Alançon, chief operating officer at Outsourcia, a Moroccan BPO company that acquired two companies in Madagascar in 2016, which employ 550 people. The time difference is also minimal (one hour in summer, two in winter).

What transformed the sector from data processing niche to stellar digital player however is the arrival of cable internet connection in 2009. Madagascar now boasts the fastest internet speed in Africa (faster even than many developed countries), a pre-requisite for good quality calls and real-time services. Since then, the number of companies has steadily grown.

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“They also have a natural empathy”? Is this a weird way of saying “despite where they live, they’re human”? Anyway, a good demonstration of how important internet speed is: Madagascar’s average broadband speed is 24.9MB/s, well above Canada, France and the soon-to-need-plenty-of-foreign-income UK.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.980: the vitamin D myth, how smart TVs pay, Brexit’s paranoid fantasy, where Apple stumbled, and more

Norma Jean Baker working in a US armaments factory, 1944
Norma Jean Dougherty, as she then was, working on a drone (really) in 1944. Haven’t got it? Put it this way: she isn’t winding a candle. Now we have some different AirPower to expect. Get it?

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 14 links for you. We’ve got a lot of things to get through today, so let’s get started. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg news: searching on YouTube lands conspiracy theories instead • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Drew Harwell:

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Conspiracy theories about the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have dominated YouTube this week, illustrating how the world’s most popular video site is failing to prevent its algorithm from helping popularize viral hoaxes and misinformation.

More than half of the top 20 search results for her initials, “RBG,” on Wednesday pointed to false far-right videos, some claiming doctors are using mysterious illegal drugs to keep her alive, according to a review by The Washington Post. Ginsburg has been absent from oral arguments at the Supreme Court this week as she recuperates from recent surgery to remove cancer from her lungs. Tests revealed Friday that she will need no further treatment and that her recovery is on track.

The falsehoods, most of which originated with the fringe movement QAnon, dramatically outnumbered results from credible news sources. Only one of the top results came from a mainstream news site, CNN, and it was an 11-month-old interview about her career. The algorithm rewarded the conspiracy videos over reliable news based on what it calculated was their “relevance,” signaling that the videos were probably new, popular or suitable to the search. By Thursday, a day after YouTube was contacted by The Washington Post, searches for “RBG” also surfaced multiple videos from mainstream news organizations.

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Yes I’m afraid 2019 is off to a flying start. Welcome back.
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Is sunscreen the new margarine? • Outside Online

Rowan Jacobsen:

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In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of [Vitamin D supplements] ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation?

As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled.

These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health—that big orange ball shining down from above.

One of the leaders of this rebellion is a mild-mannered dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh named Richard Weller. For years, Weller swallowed the party line about the destructive nature of the sun’s rays. “I’m not by nature a rebel,” he insisted when I called him up this fall. “I was always the good boy that toed the line at school. This pathway is one which came from following the data rather than a desire to overturn apple carts.”

Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.

It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?

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Sounds bonkers but: uh-huh.

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Common questions about environmentally-lit interfaces • Bob Burrough

Burrough used to work at Apple, where he was closely involved in developing the iPhone and iPad:

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An environmentally-lit interface takes information from the environment around the device and uses it to render physically-accurate things on the screen. It appears as if the lights around you are shining on the things on the screen. If the lighting in your room is bright, then the things on your screen are brightly lit. They can even take on complex characteristics like mother-of-pearl or opal…

[But isn’t this very clunky? How’s that going to work in practice?]

The very first haptics-enabled iOS devices we built were iPod Touches with haptic actuators sandwiched between the screen and rest of the device. They were an inch thick and powered by a pack of AA batteries hung on a wire outside the device. They were ridiculous-looking; nothing you would expect to be used in real life. It took many iterations to develop what eventually became Apple’s Taptic Engine. Today, no one would question the elegance of that feature of Apple’s most popular products.

To date, every demo of an environmentally-lit interface has used retrofitted hardware. None of these represent the ideal device capable of an environmentally-lit interface.

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It’s interesting – the idea that elements on the screen will look as though they’re real and in your environment. And the fact about the Taptic Engine is quite the thing.

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Taking the smarts out of smart TVs would make them more expensive • The Verge

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Nilay Patel: You guys are committed to low price points and you often beat the industry at those price points. Can you hit those price points without the additional data collection that TV does if you don’t have an ad business or a data business on top of the TV?

Bill Baxter, CTO of TV maker Vizio: So that’s a great question. Actually, we should have a beer and have a long, long chat about that.

So look, it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV.

This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.

And then I need to make money off those TVs. They live in households for 6.9 years — the average lifetime of a Vizio TV is 6.9 years. You would probably be amazed at the number of people come up to me saying, “I love Vizio TVs, I have one” and it’s 11 years old. I’m like, “Dude, that’s not even full HD, that’s 720p.”

…And the reason why we do that is there are ways to monetize that TV and data is one, but not only the only one. It’s sort of like a business of singles and doubles, it’s not home runs, right? You make a little money here, a little money there. You sell some movies, you sell some TV shows, you sell some ads, you know. It’s not really that different than The Verge website.

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Well, it’s a point of view. Now let’s rewind a couple of years…
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February 2017: VIZIO to pay $2.2m to FTC, state of New Jersey to settle charges it collected viewing histories on 11 million smart televisions without users’ consent • Federal Trade Commission

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VIZIO, Inc., one of the world’s largest manufacturers and sellers of internet-connected “smart” televisions, has agreed to pay $2.2m to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General that it installed software on its TVs to collect viewing data on 11 million consumer TVs without consumers’ knowledge or consent.

The stipulated federal court order requires VIZIO to prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices, and prohibits misrepresentations about the privacy, security, or confidentiality of consumer information they collect. It also requires the company to delete data collected before March 1, 2016, and to implement a comprehensive data privacy program and biennial assessments of that program.

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Los Angeles accuses Weather Channel app of covertly mining user data • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Natasha Singer:

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One of the most popular online weather services in the United States, the Weather Channel app has been downloaded more than 100 million times and has 45 million active users monthly.

The government said the Weather Company, the business behind the app, unfairly manipulated users into turning on location tracking by implying that the information would be used only to localize weather reports. Yet the company, which is owned by IBM, also used the data for unrelated commercial purposes, like targeted marketing and analysis for hedge funds, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses the Weather Channel of manipulating users by implying that tracking data would be used only to localize weather reports.

The city’s lawsuit cited an article last month in The New York Times that detailed a sprawling industry of companies that profit from continuously snooping on users’ precise whereabouts. The companies collect location data from smartphone apps to cater to advertisers, stores and investors seeking insights into consumer behavior.

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Covertly mining user data. Is this better or worse that using your computer to covertly mine cryptocurrency? Discuss.
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Widely cited study of fake news retracted by researchers • Rolling Stone

Lilly Dancyger:

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The study sought to determine the role of short attention spans and information overload in the spread of fake news. To do this, researchers compared the empirical data from social networking sites that show that fake news is just as likely to be shared as real news — a fact that Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University and a co-author of the study, stresses to Rolling Stone is still definitely true — to a simplified model they created of a social media site where they could control for various factors.

Because of an error in processing their findings, their results showed that the simplified model was able to reproduce the real-life numbers, determining that people spread fake news because of their short attention spans and not necessarily, for example, because of foreign bots promoting particular stories. Last spring, the researchers discovered the error when they tried to reproduce their results and found that while attention span and information overload did impact how fake news spread through their model network, they didn’t impact it quite enough to account for the comparative rates at which real and fake news spread in real life. They alerted the journal right away, and the journal deliberated for almost a year whether to issue a correction or a retraction, before finally deciding on Monday to retract the article.

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Note the “still definitely true” bit. Also, could I just point out: this is Rolling Stone writing an article about the retraction of a peer-reviewed paper from the Nature group. Hello, 2019, how ya feeling.
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Report: AirPower has entered production and coming soon [updated] • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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Hong Kong website ChargerLAB cites a “credible source” within Apple’s supply chain who claims Chinese manufacturer Luxshare Precision has started production of the AirPower. In a conversation on Chinese messaging app WeChat, the source adds he has heard the AirPower will be released soon…

Luxshare is a member of the Wireless Power Consortium behind the Qi standard and also assembles AirPods for Apple — and Lightning to USB-C cables, according to ChargerLAB. Reports had suggested Luxshare would be a primary supplier of the AirPower since as early as February 2017…

A few weeks ago, developer Steve Troughton-Smith said he’s heard Apple may have overcome technical challenges with the AirPower and could move forward with a release. Those technical challenges included overheating and interference issues, according to Sonny Dickson, an occasional source of Apple leaks.

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Well, that would be fun. The longest-delayed Apple product finally seeing the light.
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Poland calls for ‘joint’ EU-Nato stance on Huawei after spying arrest • The Guardian

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Poland’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, called for the European Union and Nato to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets.

Brudziński said Poland wanted to continue cooperating with China but that a discussion was needed on whether to exclude Huawei from some markets.

“There are concerns about Huawei within Nato as well. It would make most sense to have a joint stance, among EU member states and Nato members,” he told broadcaster RMF FM.

“We want relations with China that are good, intensive and attractive for both sides,” he added.

Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecommunications equipment, is facing intense scrutiny in the west over its relationship with China’s government.

In August, the US president, Donald Trump, signed a bill that barred the US government from using Huawei equipment and is considering an executive order that would also ban US companies from doing so.

In December, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada at the request of the US, which wants her extradited to face charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.

Seeking to distance itself from the Polish incident, Huawei on Saturday said in a statement it had sacked Wang, whose “alleged actions have no relation to the company”.

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How this (and ZTE’s position) plays out over the rest of this year could be crucial to China’s position in 5G, and the progress of 5G. If this is also applied to Huawei handsets (a faint but real possibility) it would really put a crimp on things. Expect recriminations if that happens.
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Apple’s errors • Stratechery

Ben Thompson, with the only take you need on Apple’s revenue warning at the start of January:

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to the extent that iPhone XS sales slowed in October, Apple likely expected the iPhone XR to pick up the slack; I strongly suspect the XR failed to live up to expectations.

This too, though, should have been predictable: sure, from a feature perspective the XR seemed remarkably competitive with the XS, but we have ample evidence that iPhone buyers want the best possible iPhone. After this year’s iPhone keynote I wrote:

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There is, of course, the question of cannibalism: if the XR is so great, why spend $250 more on an XS, or $350 more for the giant XS Max? This is where the iPhone X lesson matters. Last year’s iPhone 8 was a great phone too, with the same A11 processor as the iPhone X, a high quality LCD screen like the iPhone XR, and a premium aluminum-and-glass case (and 3D Touch!). It also had Touch ID and a more familiar interface, both arguably advantages in their own right, and the Plus size that so many people preferred.

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It didn’t matter: Apple’s best customers, not just those who buy an iPhone every year, but also those whose only two alternatives are “my current once-flagship iPhone” or “the new flagship iPhone” are motivated first-and-foremost by having the best; price is a secondary concern. That is why the iPhone X was the best-selling smartphone, and the iPhone 8 — which launched two months before the iPhone X — a footnote.

It remains to be seen the extent to which this is the case globally, but the market where having the flagship matters most has always been China. iPhone XS sales slowing and not being picked up by the just-launched XR certainly explain the timing of the missed forecast.

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After Apple delivered its warning, Samsung and then LG followed suit. It’s an economy thing, perhaps. But his point that the “S” updates don’t work in China is well made.
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The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit • The Guardian

Fintan O’Toole:

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In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony. And, as [Len] Deighton successfully demonstrated [in his book SS-GB], this logic can be founded in an alternative English history. The moment of greatest triumph – the defeat of the Nazis – can be reimagined as the moment of greatest humiliation – defeat by the Nazis. The pain of colonisation and defeat can, in the context of uneasy membership of the EU, be imaginatively appropriated. (Boris Johnson, in the Telegraph of 12 November, claimed that “we are on the verge of signing up for something even worse than the current constitutional position. These are the terms that might be enforced on a colony.”)

SS-GB was in part the inspiration for an even more successful English thriller, Robert Harris’s multimillion-selling Fatherland, published in 1992 and filmed for television in 1994. Harris had begun the novel in the mid-1980s but abandoned it. He revived and finished it explicitly in the context of German reunification in 1990 and of fears that the enemy Britain had defeated twice in the 20th century would end the century by dominating it: “If,” Harris wrote in the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition in 2012, “there was one factor that suddenly gave my fantasy of a united Germany a harder edge, it was the news that exactly such an entity was unexpectedly returning to the heart of Europe.”

…Europe’s role in this weird psychodrama is entirely pre-scripted. It does not greatly matter what the European Union is or what it is doing – its function in the plot is to be a more insidious form of nazism. This is important to grasp, because one of the key arguments in mainstream pro-Brexit political and journalistic discourse would be that Britain had to leave because the Europe it had joined was not the Europe it found itself part of in 2016.

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This is a big week for Brexit, of whatever flavour (hard, soft, revoked) in the UK. This piece is a good backgrounder to the enmity behind one side.
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How cartographers for the US military inadvertently created a house of horrors in South Africa • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill:

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MaxMind has never told me exactly what their secret sauce is for determining where in the world an IP address is located, but if it doesn’t know that much about an IP address, and knows only that it’s being used by a device somewhere in the United States, it previously gave the coordinates for the front yard of Joyce Taylor’s farm in Kansas; by the time I called her in 2016, 90 million IP addresses were mapped to her home in MaxMind’s database. Any time a device using one of those IP addresses did something terrible, those looking into it assumed the people who lived at the farm were responsible.

When I emailed the company’s founder Thomas Mather, back in 2016, asking why it had associated so many IP addresses with the Kansas farm, he’d been incredibly candid with me, explaining that the company had picked a default digital location for the United States basically at random without realizing it would cause problems for the person who lived there. He asked me what the company should do to rectify the situation. “Do you have a sense of how far away we should locate these lat/lons from a residential address?” he emailed me back. “Do we also need to locate the lat/lon away from business/commercial addresses?”

I was a little stunned at the time to have the CEO of a company ask me for that kind of very basic advice about his own business. The company wound up changing the default location for the U.S. from Joyce Taylor’s farm to a lake nearby. Taylor and the residents of the farm later sued MaxMind; the case settled out of court.

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But it didn’t do it for every one of those locations. Such as, yes, one in South Africa. Hill is gradually picking off every badly-assigned house in the dataset.
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Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why • Nature

Alexandra Witze:

»

Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.

«

Isn’t this sort of the premise of the 2003 film The Core, which critics noted proved that the centre of the earth is actually cheesy?

Oh, there’s an update: “The release of the World Magnetic Model has been postponed to 30 January due to the ongoing US government shutdown.”
link to this extract


Mark Zuckerberg’s empire of oily rags • Locus Magazine

Cory Doctorow:

»

Facebook isn’t a mind-control ray. It’s a tool for finding people who possess uncommon, hard-to-locate traits, whether that’s “person thinking of buying a new refrigerator,” “person with the same rare disease as you,” or “person who might participate in a genocidal pogrom,” and then pitching them on a nice side-by-side or some tiki torches, while showing them social proof of the desirability of their course of action, in the form of other people (or bots) that are doing the same thing, so they feel like they’re part of a crowd.

Even if mind-control rays remain science fiction, Facebook and other commercial surveillance platforms are still worrisome, and not just because they allow people with extreme views to find each other…

…It’s as though Mark Zuckerberg woke up one morning and realized that the oily rags he’d been accumulating in his garage could be refined for an extremely low-grade, low-value crude oil. No one would pay very much for this oil, but there were a lot of oily rags, and provided no one asked him to pay for the inevitable horrific fires that would result from filling the world’s garages with oily rags, he could turn a tidy profit.

A decade later, everything is on fire and we’re trying to tell Zuck and his friends that they’re going to need to pay for the damage and install the kinds of fire-suppression gear that anyone storing oily rags should have invested in from the beginning, and the commercial surveillance industry is absolutely unwilling to contemplate anything of the sort.

«

The first point is so apt. The internet joins points at the edge; it’s a way to find people with a common interest. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s really bad.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.979: Alexa reveals too much, Fortnite’s hackers cash in, K-Cup inventor regrets, and more


Could your smart speaker find this local pop-up shop? Or play the album? CC-licensed photo by Vladimir on Flickr.

This is the last Start Up (and probably Overspill entry) of the year. Have a wonderful break and we’ll meet again on 14 January 2019. In a few weeks we’ll cross the 1,000 mark. Exciting!


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Once again, we’re urging you to donate to
Shelter, the charity which aims to help the homeless.

Readers in the US can donate to any of the many related charities. Please give as generously as you feel you can.


A selection of 11 links for you. The last of the year! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Amazon Alexa eavesdropping nightmare came true • Gizmodo

Jennings Brown on how a German citizen requested their Alexa data under GDPR – and got someone else’s instead, which they shared with C’t magazine:

»

C’t magazine listened to many of the files and was able “to piece together a detailed picture of the customer concerned and his personal habits.” It found that he used Alexa in various places, has an Echo at home, and has a Fire device on his TV. They noticed that a woman was around at times. They listened to him in the shower.

»

We were able to navigate around a complete stranger’s private life without his knowledge, and the immoral, almost voyeuristic nature of what we were doing got our hair standing on end. The alarms, Spotify commands, and public transport inquiries included in the data revealed a lot about the victims’ personal habits, their jobs, and their taste in music. Using these files, it was fairly easy to identify the person involved and his female companion. Weather queries, first names, and even someone’s last name enabled us to quickly zero in on his circle of friends. Public data from Facebook and Twitter rounded out the picture.

«

Using the information they gathered from the recordings, the magazine contacted the victim of the data leak. He “was audibly shocked,” and confirmed it was him in the recordings and that the outlet had figured out the identity of his girlfriend. He said Amazon did not contact him.

«

link to this extract


Annual smart speaker IQ test • Loup Ventures

Gene Munster (of “Apple will make a TV!” fame) and Will Thompson:

»

We asked each smart speaker the same 800 questions, and they were graded on two metrics: 1. Did it understand what was said? 2. Did it deliver a correct response? The question set, which is designed to comprehensively test a smart speaker’s ability and utility, is broken into 5 categories:

• Local – Where is the nearest coffee shop?
• Commerce – Can you order me more paper towels?
• Navigation – How do I get to uptown on the bus?
• Information – Who do the Twins play tonight?
• Command – Remind me to call Steve at 2 pm today.

…Google Home continued its outperformance, answering 86% correctly and understanding all 800 questions. The HomePod correctly answered 75% and only misunderstood three, the Echo correctly answered 73% and misunderstood eight questions, and Cortana correctly answered 63% and misunderstood just five questions.

«

You’d seriously ask a speaker in your home where the nearest coffee shop is? And how to get “uptown” (?) on the bus? What about “Will you send my data to the wrong person?” And I’d rather test it with something like “Play the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album”. (A command I highly recommend, by the way.)
link to this extract


Fortnite teen hackers ‘earning thousands of pounds a week’ • BBC News

Joe Tidy, BBC cybersecurity reporter:

»

Children as young as 14 are making thousands of pounds a week as part of a global hacking network built around the popular video game Fortnite.

About 20 hackers told the BBC they were stealing the private gaming accounts of players and reselling them online.

Fortnite is free to play but is estimated to have made more than £1bn through the sale of “skins”, which change the look of a character, and other add-ons. This fuels a growing black market. Hackers can sell player accounts for as little as 25p or hundreds of pounds, depending on what they contain.

The items are collected as in-game purchases but are purely cosmetic and do not give gamers any extra abilities. Fortnite-maker Epic declined to comment on the investigation but said it was working to improve account security. The game has more than 200 million players.

One British hacker said he got involved at the age of 14 earlier this summer, when he himself became the victim of a hack. Speaking from his bedroom via a video chat, wearing a baseball cap and bandana to hide his identity, the teenager said he had spent about £50 of his pocket money to build up a collection of skins, when he had woken up to a message that changed everything.

“The email said that my password had been changed and two-factor authentication had been added by someone else. It felt horrible,” he recalled.

«

Noted in passing: the BBC now has a cybersecurity reporter. Bet he’s busy.
link to this extract


K-Cup creator John Sylvan regrets inventing Keurig coffee pod system • CBC News

»

As the man who invented them, Sylvan might have been pleased with their popularity. But he left the company in 1997, selling his ownership of the product for $50,000.

To this day, he still doesn’t understand why people like them. “I find them rather expensive,” he said.

So, how does he make coffee? “I make a pot of coffee in the morning into a thermal carafe,” he says. “Before I go to bed … I put the coffee and water in, and when I wake up there’s a pot of coffee,” he deadpans. “We throw away a lot of coffee but it’s so cheap on a per-cup basis.”

Canadian coffee firm takes Keurig to court in pod spat
Coffee starts to deteriorate the minute it comes in contact with oxygen, which is why at grocery stores, coffee is typically either sold in a foil bag or an aluminum tin, because both are impervious to air.

Plastic doesn’t have the same properties, but the K-Cup basically achieves the same thing, while being able to be heated with hot water, by incorporating four different layers and types of plastic. That’s problematic for recycling, because the process requires different recyclable materials to be separated into different groups.

For its part, Keurig Green Mountain pledges to have fully recyclable K-Cups by 2020, but by the company’s own admission, the cups aren’t recyclable at the moment.

«

link to this extract


Does AI make strong tech companies stronger? • Benedict Evans

»

We can’t actually describe all of the logical steps we use to walk, or to recognise a cat. With machine learning, instead of writing rules, you give examples (lots of examples) to a statistical engine, and that engine generates a model that can tell the difference. You give it 100,000 pictures labelled ‘cat’ and 100,000 labelled ‘no cat’ and the machine works out the difference. ML replaces hand-written logical steps with automatically determined patterns in data, and works much better for a very broad class of question – the easy demos are in computer vision, language and speech, but the use cases are much broader. Quite how much data you need is a moving target: there are research paths to allow ML to work with much smaller data sets, but for now, (much) more data is almost always better.  

Hence the question: if ML lets you do new and important things and ML is better the more data you have, then how far does that mean that companies that are already big and have lots of data get stronger? How far are there are winner-takes-all effects? It is easy to imagine virtuous circles strengthening a winner: ‘more data = more accurate model = better product = more users = more data’. From here it’s an easy step to statements like ‘Google / Facebook / Amazon have all the data‘ or indeed ‘China has all the data’ – the fear that the strongest tech companies will get stronger, as will countries with large populations and ‘permissive’ attitudes to centralised use of data.   

Well, sort of.

«

Always worth reading.
link to this extract


Slack bans Iranian academic living in Canada because of sanctions • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

»

The spokesperson added that Slack determines these violations by banning users who use IP addresses from banned countries.

“Our systems may have detected an account and/or a workspace owner on our platform with an IP address originating from a designated embargoed country. If our systems indicate a workspace primary owner has an IP address originating from a designated embargoed country, the entire workspace will be deactivated,” the statement read.

It is not clear if Abdi did connect from an Iranian IP address; he did not respond to requests for comment. He did tweet that he cannot rule out the possibility of Slack connecting when he travelled to Iran earlier in the year.

Regardless, experts say determining which users have violated based on IP address is not the best way to enforce sanctions.

“If they looked into the account, saw where they are employed/where their bank accounts are and realize there is no flow of money between Iran and US/Canada because of this login, they surely would have no reason to do this,” Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with freedom of expression organisation Article 19 and a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Motherboard in an online chat.

«

Tricky. The US is aggressive with its sanctions enforcement, and if someone has used an Iranian IP address, you can bet a company is going to block that account. Better safe than sorry in the current climate: Slack won’t want to end up before a judge being fined.
link to this extract


Apple to pull some iPhones in Germany as Qualcomm extends global wins • Reuters

Jörn Poltz and Stephen Nellis:

»

Qualcomm’s win in Germany comes weeks after it secured a court order to ban sales of some iPhone models in China. Apple, which is contesting both rulings, has continued to offer its iPhones in China but made changes to its iOS operating system in the wake of the Chinese order.

The German victory may affect only a few million iPhones out of the hundreds of millions that Apple sells each year. Still, it is a small but clear win in a complex legal battle that will spin into overdrive in the coming months as antitrust regulators and Apple both take Qualcomm to court in the United States…

…Qualcomm is not pursuing the software patents in the Chinese case in other jurisdictions and suffered an early loss while pursuing a US sales ban on the US version of the hardware patent at issue in Germany.

«

The phones being pulled are the iPhone 7 and 8. It feels like a rerun of 2010, with the Samsung bickering.
link to this extract


He tried to fake his way to fame and got caught red-handed. Or did he? • BBC News

Jessica Lussenhop on Threatin, the band (really one person) who faked a fanbase to get a European tour:

»

As he explained his tactics, Jered [Threatin] was relaxed, confident – not the slightest bit embarrassed. But that’s because he had something he was eager to show me – a series of emails that he said he sent out under yet another alias, a Gmail account belonging to “E. Evieknowsit”.

“URGENT: News tip,” the subject line read.

“The musician going by the name Threatin is a total fake. He faked a record label, booking agent, facebook likes, and an online fanbase to book a European tour. ZERO people are coming to the shows and it is clear that his entire operation is fake,” he wrote, including links to all his phoney websites.

“Please don’t let this man fake his way to fame… Please Expose him.”

The first such message he showed me was dated 2 November, a day into the Breaking the World Tour, and a week before the first news reports were published. He says he sent the messages out to a database of reporters’ emails he keeps in a massive Excel spreadsheet on his laptop – to outlets like the Huffington Post, Spin, Consequence of Sound, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Pitchfork, New York Times, MetalSucks and, yes, the BBC. Although it was unclear if the tips directly resulted in coverage, some of the emails appear to have predated articles.

During the tour, when the bandmates weren’t looking or in another room, Eames claimed he was on his phone on Facebook under his various aliases, stoking the controversy.

«

Long read. You start wondering, is this one of those things where they say portentously “It’s ART, you see.”
link to this extract


John Giannandrea named to Apple’s executive team • Apple

»

John Giannandrea has been named to the company’s executive team as senior vice president of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Strategy. He joined Apple in April 2018.

Giannandrea oversees the strategy for AI and Machine Learning across all Apple products and services, as well as the development of Core ML and Siri technologies. His team’s focus on advancing and tightly integrating machine learning into Apple products is delivering more personal, intelligent and natural interactions for customers while protecting user privacy. 

“John hit the ground running at Apple and we are thrilled to have him as part of our executive team,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “Machine learning and AI are important to Apple’s future as they are fundamentally changing the way people interact with technology, and already helping our customers live better lives. We’re fortunate to have John, a leader in the AI industry, driving our efforts in this critical area.” 

«

Only taken seven years, but Siri now has his/her own veep. And note the points about ML/AI being “important”. Not “essential”?
link to this extract


Did Google intentionally cripple Edge’s YouTube performance? • Medium

Jeremy Noring:

»

Recently this article has been making the rounds on Slashdot and other tech sites. The TL;DR of the article is a Microsoft intern insinuates that Google may have intentionally crippled Edge video rendering performance on YouTube:

»

I very recently worked on the Edge team, and one of the reasons we decided to end EdgeHTML was because Google kept making changes to its sites that broke other browsers, and we couldn’t keep up. For example, they recently added a hidden empty div over YouTube videos that causes our hardware acceleration fast-path to bail (should now be fixed in Win10 Oct update). Prior to that, our fairly state-of-the-art video acceleration put us well ahead of Chrome on video playback time on battery, but almost the instant they broke things on YouTube, they started advertising Chrome’s dominance over Edge on video-watching battery life. What makes it so sad, is that their claimed dominance was not due to ingenious optimization work by Chrome, but due to a failure of YouTube. On the whole, they only made the web slower.

«

My initial reaction to this wasn’t “gee, that’s suspicious…” but more along the lines of “wait a minute… I’m pretty sure I’ve written that exact code?”

«

He suggests it’s more the collision between accessibility and the way that Edge interacts with HTML5 video. In general, go with Hanlon’s Law.
link to this extract


I’m an expert on negotiations, and I have some advice for Theresa May • NY Times

Deepak Malhotra is a professor who has sat in on and advised many negotiations:

»

Mrs. May should do what she has resisted so far: announce her intention to hold a second Brexit referendum if she cannot get enough support for her deal. This is a one-two punch. First, it presents a credible threat to reluctant conservative members of Parliament who would prefer nearly anything to holding another referendum and, potentially, having Remain win. If this threat somehow fails to move enough votes, and Mrs. May’s deal is dead, the second punch follows through on the threat and lets voters vote again — having now witnessed the reality of Brexit — whether to leave or remain in the European Union. When all else fails, this helps avoid Mrs. May’s least preferred option: no deal.

«

I thought this would be nonsense, but the logic (of which this is the conclusion – it’s to get her deal through, not to have a another referendum) is powerful.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the link in yesterday’s set to risks of vaping was from 2015. The UK government apparently hasn’t updated its advice since then.

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.

Start Up No.978: Facebook in hot water again, China arrests another Canadian, Amazon’s Marketplace scams, Apple’s India problem, and more


Vaping is significantly safer than tobacco smoking, a new British government-funded study says. CC-licensed photo by Vaping360 on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s (given events at Wednesday’s PMQs) is
Action On Hearing Aid, which aims to provide vital support to thousands of people affected by deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss.

Readers in the US can donate to the National Association of the Deaf. Please give as generously as you feel you can.


A selection of 10 links for you. But have you got all the presents? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As Facebook raised a privacy wall, it carved an opening for tech giants • The New York Times

Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nicholas Confessore:

»

Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

Facebook has been reeling from a series of privacy scandals, set off by revelations in March that a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly used Facebook data to build tools that aided President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Acknowledging that it had breached users’ trust, Facebook insisted that it had instituted stricter privacy protections long ago. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, assured lawmakers in April that people “have complete control” over everything they share on Facebook.

But the documents, as well as interviews with about 50 former employees of Facebook and its corporate partners, reveal that Facebook allowed certain companies access to data despite those protections. They also raise questions about whether Facebook ran afoul of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that barred the social network from sharing user data without explicit permission.

«

Facebook has responded on its PR page, and insists the access that was given was with consent, and didn’t break the FTC decree. Also: “most of these features are now gone.” (Me: “Most”?)

Related: [Washington] DC attorney general sues Facebook over alleged privacy violations from Cambridge Analytica scandal.
link to this extract


E-cigarettes around 95% less harmful than tobacco estimates landmark review • GOV.UK

»

An expert independent evidence review published today by Public Health England (PHE) concludes that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than tobacco and have the potential to help smokers quit smoking.

Key findings of the review include:

• the current best estimate is that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking
• nearly half the population (44.8%) don’t realise e-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking
• there is no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for children or non-smokers

The review, commissioned by PHE and led by Professor Ann McNeill (King’s College London) and Professor Peter Hajek (Queen Mary University of London), suggests that e-cigarettes may be contributing to falling smoking rates among adults and young people. Following the review PHE has published a paper on the implications of the evidence for policy and practice.

The comprehensive review of the evidence finds that almost all of the 2.6 million adults using e-cigarettes in Great Britain are current or ex-smokers, most of whom are using the devices to help them quit smoking or to prevent them going back to cigarettes. It also provides reassurance that very few adults and young people who have never smoked are becoming regular e-cigarette users (less than 1% in each group).

«

Not surprising. The only risk is continuing nicotine addiction, and the cancers associated – oral, throat. But so much less dangerous than the smoke of tobacco.
link to this extract


Third Canadian detained in China amid Huawei dispute • Reuters

David Ljunggren:

»

A third Canadian has been detained in China following the arrest of a Chinese technology executive in Vancouver, a Canadian government official said on Wednesday amid a diplomatic dispute also involving the United States.

The detentions of the Canadians followed the Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, at the request of the United States, which is engaged in a trade war with China.

«

Another victim of Trump’s transactional diplomacy: the Chinese expect he’ll ignore US law and trade them for Meng once she’s extradited.
link to this extract


Dirty dealing in the $175bn Amazon Marketplace • The Verge

Josh Dzieza:

»

Last August, Zac Plansky woke to find that the rifle scopes he was selling on Amazon had received 16 five-star reviews overnight. Usually, that would be a good thing, but the reviews were strange. The scope would normally get a single review a day, and many of these referred to a different scope, as if they’d been cut and pasted from elsewhere. “I didn’t know what was going on, whether it was a glitch or whether somebody was trying to mess with us,” Plansky says.

As a precaution, he reported the reviews to Amazon. Most of them vanished days later — problem solved — and Plansky reimmersed himself in the work of running a six-employee, multimillion-dollar weapons accessory business on Amazon. Then, two weeks later, the trap sprang. “You have manipulated product reviews on our site,” an email from Amazon read. “This is against our policies. As a result, you may no longer sell on Amazon.com, and your listings have been removed from our site.”

A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”

…Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175bn prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police.

«

link to this extract


Pinterest readies itself for early 2019 IPO • WSJ

Maureen Farrell:

»

Pinterest Inc. is actively preparing for an IPO that could come as soon as April, according to people familiar with the company’s plans, the latest in a line of tech companies ramping up plans to go public.

Pinterest has told bankers it could choose its slate of underwriters to run the initial-public-offering process as soon as January, these people said. It could achieve a valuation in the public market at or in excess of $12 billion—the level at which it most recently raised funding, some of the people said. Valuations can change until a company prices its initial public offering.

In September, Pinterest surpassed more than 250 million monthly active users, who visit the site to browse through billions of images on topics ranging from living-room furniture to dinner recipes and tattoos. The company generates revenue from ads scattered across its site and is poised to generate revenue in excess of $700m this year, up 50% from the prior year, according to a person familiar with the matter.

«

With revenues like that, it might even be making a profit. How soon before we hear it has been taken over by Nazis and pornographers?
link to this extract


How Amazon Alexa uses machine learning to get smarter • WIRED

Brian Barrett:

»

Because many voice assistant improvements aim to reduce friction, they’re almost invisible by design. Over the past year, Alexa has learned how to carry over context from one query to the next, and to register follow-up questions without having to repeat the wake word. You can ask Alexa to do more than one thing in the same request, and summon a skill—Alexa’s version of apps—without having to know its exact name.

Those may sound like small tweaks, but cumulatively they represent major progress toward a more conversational voice assistant, one that solves problems rather than introducing new frustrations. You can talk to Alexa in a far more natural way than you could a year ago, with a reasonable expectation that it will understand what you’re saying.

Those gains have come, unsurprisingly, through the continued introduction and refinement of machine learning techniques. So-called active learning, in which the system identifies areas in which it needs help from a human expert, has helped substantially cut down on Alexa’s error rates. “That’s fed into every part of our pipeline, including speech recognition and natural language understanding,” says Rohit Prasad, vice president and chief scientist of Amazon Alexa. “That makes all of our machine learning models look better.”

…The benefits of the machine learning improvements manifest themselves across all aspects of Alexa, but the simplest argument for its impact is that the system has seen a 25% reduction in its error rate over the last year. That’s a significant number of headaches Echo owners no longer have to deal with.

«

link to this extract


Kids apps on Google Play have “disturbing” content and may violate privacy laws, says letter to FTC • Buzzfeed

Virginia Hughes:

»

Google is marketing apps to kids that share personal data with third parties, show manipulative ads, and are rife with creepy images — from graphic plucking of eyelashes to rubbing oil on scantily clad pregnant women — according to a new review.

In a 99-page letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and 21 other child advocacy groups argue that the government should investigate Google for misrepresenting these apps as safe for families. Two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. David Cicilline, also support the letter.

“Google doesn’t really have any incentive to clean up its own app store,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC, because app makers give Google 30% of the revenue for every app purchase and in-app purchase. “The things that are concerning and problematic, they actually profit off of.”

Apple’s App Store lists some of the same apps, though it has stricter rules for those allowed in its “Kids” category. And Google has done little to address the problem, Golin said, despite getting public heat since April.

«

The illustrations show that they really are creepy images.
link to this extract


BT suspends free calls from new wi-fi hubs after drug dealers dominate use • Eastlondonlines

Thames Menteth-Wheelwright:

»

British Telecom has suspended calls from all of its futuristic InLink phone kiosks in Tower Hamlets after it emerged that the service was being used to facilitate drug dealing.

The 16 5G-enabled phone kiosks, which have replaced traditional red phone boxes, give users 30-second free phone calls to mobile devices and supply public streets with free, high-speed Wi-Fi and touchscreen web services.

Since December 6, these free calls have been temporarily suspended by BT. This follows six months of pressure from local councillors and the Metropolitan Police to suspend the service after investigations showed that drug users and dealers were using free calls to coordinate deals and drug drops.

The council said that the borough’s CCTV unit had watched an InLink for a day and found that out of 80 calls made on its free telephone, 72 of them were to buy drugs.

According to E+T magazine, the decision comes after senior police officers and InLink managers were brought face to face at a meeting in October organised by Tower Hamlets Council…

…Police and councils have halted InLink’s installation of a further 1000 kiosks in other towns and cities across the UK following Tower Hamlets’ example.

According to E+T, Bristol City Council barred 20 out of 25 InLink applications after local police objected, citing concerns raised in the east London borough.

«

Goose: cooked.
link to this extract


TikTok has a Nazi problem • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

»

Users on mega popular children’s lip-synching app TikTok are sharing calls for violence against people of colour and Jews, as well as creating and sharing neo-Nazi propaganda, Motherboard has found.

Some accounts verbatim read “kill all n*****,” “all jews must die,” and “killn******.” (The words are uncensored on the app, which is a sort of melding of Vine and Instagram that allows users to create short videos synced to music.)

Motherboard found the content on the Chinese-made app, which is used by hundreds of millions people, many including teenagers and children in the United States, within minutes of starting a basic search.

“We’ve never talked to Tik Tok, but clearly we need to,” Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told Motherboard in an email. “They need the site to be cleaned up—and now.”

«

I’d love to know how well this problem (and the previous problem, in the linked article in the body, of nudes) correlates with growth in numbers of American users.
link to this extract


‘It’s been a rout’: Apple’s iPhones fall flat in world’s largest untapped market • WSJ

Newley Purnell and Tripp Mickle:

»

Amit Rajput, who runs a counter selling iPhones in a busy electronics shop here, cuts a lonely figure. He is lucky to sell one device a day, compared with the 10 or more smartphones his colleagues at desks for Samsung Electronics Co. , Nokia Corp. and China’s Oppo sell daily in the same store.

As customers walk past his display, he recalls a different time in 2013 when he sold as many as 80 iPhones a day. Now most people want to pay less than $300 for their devices—a fraction of what Apple’s newer models cost.

Smartphone makers, facing sputtering growth in the rest of the world, have looked to India to make up the difference. With 1.3 billion consumers, the country is the world’s biggest untapped tech market. Just 24% of Indians own smartphones, and the number of users is growing faster than in any other country, according to research firm eMarketer.

How has that worked out for one of America’s most valuable companies?

The number of iPhones shipped in India has fallen 40% so far this year compared with 2017, and Apple’s market share there has dropped to about 1% from about 2%, research firm Canalys estimates…

…India’s market presents unique challenges. While competitors tweaked their phones to address local consumer concerns—increasing battery life, for example, and offering less expensive models—Apple took an inflexible stand on its pricing and products. Friction with the government hasn’t helped.

Whether the company can get its phones into the pockets of the world’s next billion smartphone buyers—in India as well as in other emerging markets, such as Indonesia and parts of Latin America—will help determine how much the company will grow in the coming decade.

«

link to this extract


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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: while high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is used for almost half of sweetening in the US (while sucrose, from sugar, is used for 90% in the rest of the world), it isn’t reckoned to be a principal cause of obesity on its own. Thanks to Pete Kleinschmidt for the pointer.

Start Up No.977: Babylon GP app questioned, Twitter goes chronological (again), Instagram’s fake influencers, election data wars, and more


American ketchup: sweetened with corn syrup, which isn’t as nice as real sugar. But why? CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Cancer Research, which aims to help fund research to end cancer.
Readers in the US: the American Cancer Society takes donations Please give as generously as you feel you can.


A selection of 9 links for you. Done all the cards? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This health startup won big government deals—but inside, doctors flagged problems • Forbes

Parmy Olson:

»

the spectacle of brash tech entrepreneurs making outsized claims for their products is hardly a new phenomenon. Neither would matter very much except for the fact that Babylon has two contracts with Britain’s National Health Service, which runs one of the world’s largest nationalized healthcare systems. Babylon’s GP At Hand app offers 35,000 NHS patients video calls and access to its triage chatbot for advice on whether to see a doctor. The NHS is also encouraging 2 million citizens in North London to use NHS 111: Online, an app from Babylon that primarily features a triage chatbot as an alternative to the NHS advice line. Neither uses Babylon’s diagnostic advice chatbot, but the company has talked about bringing this feature to its NHS apps, staff say.

The NHS’s motivations are clear and noble: It wants to save money and produce better health outcomes for patients. Britain will spend nearly $200bn on its national healthcare system in 2020, a sum equivalent to about 7% of GDP. That slice of GDP has doubled since 1950, and the country desperately needs to find a way to rein in costs while still providing a benefit that is seen as central to the UK’s social contract. 

Reducing emergency room visits is a logical step, since they cost the NHS $200 on average per visit, a total of $4bn in the past year, while waiting times are increasing and at least 1.5 million Brits go to the emergency room when they don’t need to. Babylon’s cost-saving chatbot could be a huge help. If it worked better. 

There are some doubts, for instance, about whether the software can fulfill one of its main aims: keeping the “worried well” from heading to the hospital. Early and current iterations of the chatbot advise users to go for a costly emergency room visit in around 30% of cases, according to a Babylon staffer, compared with roughly 20% of people who dial the national health advice line, 111. It’s not clear how many patients take that advice, and Babylon says it doesn’t track that data. 

«

Another amazing exposé from Olson. One of Babylon’s biggest boosters is the current health secretary Matt Hancock. Perhaps he’ll read this and think again.
link to this extract


Twitter rolls out ‘sparkle button’ to let users hide the algorithmic feed • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:

»

Twitter is giving users the ability to easily switch between seeing the latest tweets first and seeing the company’s algorithmically chosen “Top Tweets” when they open the app.

The company began testing this feature a few weeks ago, but they are officially rolling it out globally to all iOS users today, with Android and desktop users likely getting access to the feature sometime in January, according to the company.

This is part-resolution and part extended cop-out for Twitter, which has spent the better part of the past couple of years figuring out how to satisfy a need for growth with vocal, loyal users who want the act of opening the app to continue to mean getting the immediate pulse of the internet.

«

A rare win for the good old reverse chronological there, but only if people discover the magic button.
link to this extract


Influencers are faking brand deals • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:

»

“People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”

But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer”—that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money—is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: fake it until you make it.

Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”

«

Pretending to have a sort-of job is the new having a sort-of job.
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The future of television? Binge-watching is only the beginning • WSJ

Stinson Carter:

»

Television, as most people have known it for most of their lives, is no more. “At some point you’ll get to a place where thinking about television from a linear standpoint will be like dial-up internet,” says Hulu CEO Randy Freer. “It’s a great time for content; not a great time for cable networks. I think what will happen is: Cable networks that have been able to create brands for themselves will have an opportunity to expand and figure out how they present to consumers.”

Cable networks with a clear identity have a critical advantage in a subscription-based world, while networks with less-defined name recognition—those that have been just another channel in the cable lineup—will likely find it hard to entice the growing ranks of broadband-only consumers to buy an à la carte monthly subscription service.

HBO is moving into the new era. “In the domestic market of the United States, where there is a surfeit of content more than ever, I personally think that brands matter more than ever,” says HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler. In 2017, HBO had its biggest subscriber growth yet, proving that premium cable brands can still thrive alongside the likes of Netflix. “This isn’t binary; Netflix can grow and HBO can grow,” Plepler says. “We’ve always wanted to make HBO available however, wherever and whenever a consumer wants it.”

«

American consumers are waking up to how badly off they are; the cable companies are basically extortion rackets which use live sports as the way to tie them in to colossal monthly charges. Unravel those, and it all starts falling apart. The lack of adverts on Netflix (less so Hulu) has proven very attractive both to viewers and to writers.

But notice: YouTube isn’t in there as a “channel” that people watch on a TV, as far as I can tell.
link to this extract


Iranian phishers bypass 2FA protections offered by Yahoo Mail and Gmail • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

A recent phishing campaign targeting US government officials, activists, and journalists is notable for using a technique that allowed the attackers to bypass two-factor authentication (2FA) protections offered by services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail, researchers said Thursday. The event underscores the risks of 2FA that relies on one-tap logins or one-time passwords, particularly if the latter are sent in SMS messages to phones.

Attackers working on behalf of the Iranian government collected detailed information on targets and used that knowledge to write spear-phishing emails that were tailored to the targets’ level of operational security, researchers with security firm Certfa Lab said in a blog post. The emails contained a hidden image that alerted the attackers in real time when targets viewed the messages. When targets entered passwords into a fake Gmail or Yahoo security page, the attackers would almost simultaneously enter the credentials into a real login page. In the event targets’ accounts were protected by 2FA, the attackers redirected targets to a new page that requested a one-time password [OTP].

“In other words, they check victims’ usernames and passwords in realtime on their own servers, and even if two-factor authentication such as text message, authenticator app or one-tap login are enabled they can trick targets and steal that information too,” Certfa Lab researchers wrote.

In an email, a Certfa representative said company researchers confirmed that the technique successfully breached accounts protected by SMS-based 2fa.

«

It isn’t that hard, when you think about it: if you can get someone to believe they’re at a login page (feasible given how easy it is to get a security certificate for a page), you can use the time – about 30 seconds – to use the OTP. What isn’t widely known is that OTPs last longer than the 30 seconds they claim. (Yes, I wrote about this in Cyber Wars.)

link to this extract


Why ketchup in Mexico tastes so good • American Institute for Economic Research

Jeffrey Tucker:

»

The US has a mighty import quota for sugar that limits imports to keep the price as high as possible for American consumers. “Imports of sugar into the United States are governed by tariff-rate quotas (TRQs), which allow a certain quantity of sugar to enter the country under a low tariff,” says the USDA. “The USDA establishes the annual quota volumes for each federal fiscal year (beginning October 1) and the U.S. Trade Representative allocates the TRQs among countries.”

As a result, US consumers and producers pay approximately three times the world price of sugar. This discourages its use relative to substitutes. Yes, this is happening to you and me every day, and these price signals have dramatically affected our diets. This is because the decision of producers to use corn syrup instead of sugar in a highly price competitive market makes economic sense.

Try to go without corn syrup for a few days. It’s not easy. It’s true, for example, that Heinz offers a product called Simply Heinz that uses pure sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup. But that product costs nearly $1 more than the standard bottle of ketchup. You are at the grocery aisle. You are price conscious. One bottle costs a dollar less than the other, and the taste difference between the two seems barely discernible.

Only high-end, fussy, conscious consumers go for the high-end product. You can see why people desire to pay less. Prices matter. Central planning has caused this, and massive numbers of American health problems along with it.

«

From February, but nothing’s changed. The sugar tariff was first imposed in 1816 to protect plantations (with slaves) in Louisiana. Still going strong 200 years later.
link to this extract


Who will be in control of your home this Christmas? • Kantar Worldpanel

»

Duncan Stark, vice president at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, comments: “Of the fifth of the homes with a smart speaker, 60% have just one device – predominantly located in the living room – so manufacturers have a big chance to push this hardware for new and existing buyers this Christmas.

“However, almost three quarters of consumers still don’t see the point in smart speakers – a significant number for a technology that’s been fairly mainstream since around 2016.  Manufacturers need to do more to demonstrate the positive impact that owning such a device can have – like the fact that more than a quarter of owners say it’s led them to listen to more music than they used to or that 10% use their phones less. Our research shows that more than half of current owners are likely to strongly recommend their smart speaker.”

The latest Kantar Worldpanel ComTech figures on voice assisted device ownership in the US show:

• 27% of owners listen to more music than they used to
• 15% have switched to a different music streaming service since buying a voice assistant
• 13% have started using a music streaming service for the first time
• 12% have switched from a free to a paid music streaming service
• 11% ensure new electronic devices they buy are compatible with their virtual assistant

Meanwhile, worries about hacking and data security affect almost a fifth of shoppers – something which manufacturers will need to make sure they are addressing.

«

That stat about 15% having changed to a different service is notable. Only 3% of homes total, but quite a slice: there are about 126m households in the US, so that’s 3.8m households. Probably almost all of those are wins for Amazon.
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Why you should care about the Nate Silver vs. Nassim Taleb Twitter war • Towards Data Science

Isaac Faber:

»

If a prediction does not obey some fundamental characteristics, it should not be marketed as a probability. More importantly, a prediction should be judged from the time it is given to the public and not just the moment before the event. A forecaster should be held responsible for both aleatory and epistemic uncertainty.

When viewed this way, it is clear that FiveThirtyEight reports too much noise leading up to an event and not enough signal. This is great for driving users to read long series of related articles on the same topic but not so rigorous to bet your fortune on. Taleb’s and Silver’s take on how FiveThirtyEight should be judged can be visualized like this.


Taleb vs. Silver’s different take on how FiveThirtyEight should be judged in 2016

Because there is so much uncertainty around non-linear events, like an election, it could reasonably be considered frivolous to report early stage forecasts. The only conceivable reason to do so is to capture (and monetize?) the interest of a public which is hungry to know the future. I will not go into the technical arguments; Taleb has written and published a paper on the key issues with a solution.

«

“Too much noise, not enough signal” – but elections mostly are noise, and figuring out what is signal can only be done afterwards. (And everyone can argue it differently.)
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Non-disclosure Apple • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Goldberg looks back to the 2000s, when everyone used to disclose their handset sales figures:

»

The industry research shops (e.g. Gartner) sold [product sales forecast] models for other product segments, but those were fragile and prone to breaking under heavy scrutiny. For handsets, everyone involved could make sound judgments, while the other segments were prone to problems stemming from a general lack of data.

All of this started to break down after the launch of the iPhone. Many companies got themselves backed into reporting corners as their data increasingly painted the wrong picture. Apple did not pursue market share, as we first argued back in May of 2009 (email us if you would like a copy of the original note). Apple was pursuing profit share. It took several years for the other handset companies to realize that their record shipment data was useless for explaining why their profits were plummeting. Then with the early waves of Android, the former leaders’ market shares also started plummeting. And so one by one all the others stopped reporting unit figures.

We remember one example of why this data was important for the companies that were slowly stopping to report it. Around 2009, the India analyst for one of the third party research shops reported market share data that showed Nokia had lost a huge chink of market share there. Nokia actually issued an official statement denying this. The analysis company’s other analysts all chimed in as well, siding with Nokia and not their colleague. We believe the analysts was actually fired, and certainly faced reprimand when his own employers sided with one of their largest customers over their own analyst. But it turns out he was right, he had the correct data, Nokia had very rapidly gone from market share leader to number two player, and they were losing share to a swarm of China-based handset companies. By denying the reality, Nokia turned a blind eye to its growing problem, and ultimately the company was pushed from the handset market entirely.

«

So why is Apple now going to stop reporting those numbers? Optics, he thinks:

»

Investors, in particular, tend to analyze data to death. They have to make big decisions (with other people’s money) based on whatever data they can gather. Then they build models to make predictions which can have a huge impact on their valuation decisions. In Apple’s case, this means they will take any declines in unit shipments and extrapolate those numbers out to the heat death of the universe.

«

link to this extract


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Start Up No.976: self-driving recklessness, Britain’s dark news web, the Russian troll project, Google’s China project over?, and more


If Marx used an Android phone, you’d be able to break into it. CC-licensed photo by Stuart Chalmers on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Book Aid International. Every £2 you give could send another book to a child living with war
Readers in the US can donate too. Please give as generously as you feel you can.


A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The deadly recklessness of the self-driving car industry • Gizmodo

Brian Merchant:

»

The newest and most glaring example of just how reckless corporations in the autonomous vehicle space can be involves the now-infamous fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, where one of Uber’s cars struck and killed a 49-year-old pedestrian. The Information obtained an email reportedly sent by Robbie Miller, a former manager in the testing-operations group, to seven Uber executives, including the head of the company’s autonomous vehicle unit, warning that the software powering the taxis was faulty and that the backup drivers weren’t adequately trained.

“The cars are routinely in accidents resulting in damage,” Miller wrote. “This is usually the result of poor behavior of the operator or the AV technology. A car was damaged nearly every other day in February. We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles. Repeated infractions for poor driving rarely results in termination. Several of the drivers appear to not have been properly vetted or trained.”

That’s nuts. Hundreds of self-driving cars were on the road at the time, in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, and elsewhere. The AV technology was demonstrably faulty, the backup drivers weren’t staying alert, and despite repeated incidents—some clearly dangerous—nothing was being addressed. Five days after the date of Miller’s email, a Volvo using Uber’s self-driving software struck Elaine Herzberg while she was slowly crossing the street with her bicycle and killed her. The driver was apparently streaming The Voice on Hulu at the time of the accident.

This tragedy was not a freak malfunction of some cutting-edge technology—it is the entirely predictable byproduct of corporate malfeasance.

«

There isn’t a great deal that’s new here (apart from his efforts to get Tesla to explain its thinking on autonomous driving), but gathering it in one place is quite startling.
link to this extract


Google’s secret China project “effectively ended” after fight • The Intercept

Ryan Gallagher:

»

Google has been forced to shut down a data analysis system it was using to develop a censored search engine for China after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal complaints that it had been kept secret from them, The Intercept has learned.

The internal rift over the system has had massive ramifications, effectively ending work on the censored search engine, known as Dragonfly, according to two sources familiar with the plans. The incident represents a major blow to top Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, who have over the last two years made the China project one of their main priorities.

The dispute began in mid-August, when the The Intercept revealed that Google employees working on Dragonfly had been using a Beijing-based website to help develop blacklists for the censored search engine, which was designed to block out broad categories of information related to democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest, in accordance with strict rules on censorship in China that are enforced by the country’s authoritarian Communist Party government.

«

There’s some doubt, even among those who pushed against this, whether Google really has shut it down. Wait and see.
link to this extract


Uncovering what your phone knows • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries on how they got the data for that “your phones are tracking you, and the data is being sold” story from last week:

»

I wrote an article in May about a company that bought access to data from the major US cellphone carriers. My reporting showed that the company, Securus Technologies, allowed law enforcement to get this data, and officers were using the information to track people’s locations without a warrant. After that article ran, I started getting tips that the use of location data from cellphones was more widespread than I had initially reported. One person highlighted a thread on Hacker News, an online forum popular with technologists. On the site, people were anonymously discussing their work for companies that used people’s precise location data.

I called sources who knew about mapping and location data. Many had worked in that field for more than a decade. I also partnered with other Times reporters, Natasha Singer and Adam Satariano, who were looking into something similar. These conversations were the start of an investigation into how smartphone apps were tracking people’s locations, and the revelation that the tipsters were right — selling location data was common and lucrative.

On a big investigation like this one, hours and even days of work can go into a single paragraph or even a sentence. This is especially true in technology investigations because the subject matter is so detailed; combing through data and conducting technical tests is time consuming.

«

link to this extract


Remove Background from Image • remove.bg

»

Remove Image Background FREE, 100% automatically – in 5 seconds – without a single click.

Remove.bg is a free service to remove the background of any photo. It works 100% automatically: You don’t have to manually select the background/foreground layers to separate them – just select your image and instantly download the result image with the background removed!

«

Uses “sophisticated AI technology”. Only works on people and faces. They say they delete the results from their servers after an hour.

Pretty good, if you have a need for cutouts.
link to this extract


We broke into a bunch of Android phones with a 3D-printed head • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

»

For our tests, we used my own real-life head to register for facial recognition across five phones. An iPhone X and four Android devices: an LG G7 ThinQ, a Samsung S9, a Samsung Note 8 and a OnePlus 6. I then held up my fake head to the devices to see if the device would unlock. For all four Android phones, the spoof face was able to open the phone, though with differing degrees of ease. The iPhone X was the only one to never be fooled.

There were some disparities between the Android devices’ security against the hack. For instance, when first turning on a brand new G7, LG actually warns the user against turning facial recognition on at all. “Face recognition is a secondary unlock method that results in your phone being less secure,” it says, noting that a similar face can unlock your phone. No surprise then that, on initial testing, the 3D-printed head opened it straightaway.

Yet during filming, it appeared the LG had been updated with improved facial recognition, making it considerably more difficult to open. As an LG spokesperson told Forbes, “The facial recognition function can be improved on the device through a second recognition step and advanced recognition which LG advises through setup. LG constantly seeks to make improvements to its handsets on a regular basis through updates for device stability and security.” They added that facial recognition was seen as “a secondary unlock feature” to others like a PIN or fingerprint.

There’s a similar warning on the Samsung S9 on sign up. “Your phone could be unlocked by someone or something that looks like you,” it notes. “If you use facial recognition only, this will be less secure than using a pattern, PIN or password.” Oddly, though, on setting up the device the first presented option for unlocking was facial and iris recognition.

«

Windows Hello didn’t let him in either. An absurd spinoff of this story (not by Brewster) suggests police might now use 3D printed heads to break into suspects’ phones. Duh. You just show the phone to them. (Assuming you’ve got them before the unlock timeout.)
link to this extract


How Russian trolls used meme warfare to divide America • WIRED

»

Conversations around the [Russian] Internet Research Agency [IRA] operations traditionally have focused on Facebook and Twitter, but like any hip millennial, the IRA was actually most obsessive about Instagram. “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency,” the New Knowledge researchers write. All in, the troll accounts received 187 million engagements on Instagram, and about 40% of the accounts they created had at least 10,000 followers.

That isn’t to say, however, that the trolls neglected Twitter. There, the IRA deployed 3,841 accounts, including several personas that “regularly played hashtag games.” That approach paid off; 1.4 million people engaged with the tweets, leading to nearly 73 million engagements. Most of this work was focused on news, while on Facebook and Instagram, the Russians prioritized “deeper relationships,” according to the researchers. On Facebook, the IRA notched a total of 3.3 million page followers, who engaged with their politically divisive content 76.5 million times. Russia’s most popular pages targeted the right wing and the black community. The trolls also knew their audiences; they deployed Pepe memes at pages intended for right-leaning millennials, but kept them away from posts directed at older conservative Facebook users. Not every attempt was a hit; while 33 of the 81 IRA Facebook pages had over 1,000 followers, dozens had none at all.

That the IRA trolls aimed to pit Americans against each other with divisive memes is now well known. But this latest report reveals just how bizarre some of the IRA’s outreach got. To collect personally identifying information about targets, and perhaps use it to create custom and Lookalike audiences on Facebook, the IRA’s Instagram pages sold all kinds of merchandise. That includes LGBT sex toys and “many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”

«

You might think America has done pretty well at dividing itself over the past 20 years. And you’d be right. The report is highly recommended.
link to this extract


How Britain grapples with nationalist dark web • POLITICO

Tom McTague:

»

For May’s government, populist news sites are an increasing threat. Under previous prime ministers, like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown — or even the early years of David Cameron — a handful of newspapers and television stations served as news gatekeepers, picking out what they considered important and beaming it to a mass audience.

Some publications were hostile, of course, but they were known quantities, their editors contactable, their reporters easy to berate. Today’s news media has broken completely free of these bounds.

News, fake news, information and disinformation now reaches voters through a collection of social media pages, messaging apps, video platforms and anonymous websites spreading content beyond the control of anyone in Whitehall — or the Élysée in France, as Emmanuel Macron is discovering.

“Who do you ring?” asked one exasperated No. 10 official when asked about these sites. “You don’t know who these people are.”

At 12:50 p.m. on April 25, 2018, a new British political news website was registered in Scottsdale, Arizona. Within weeks, PoliticalUK.co.uk was producing some of the most viral news stories in the U.K. and had been included on briefing notes circulated in No. 10.

The website — specializing in hyper-partisan coverage of Brexit, Islam and Tommy Robinson — has no named editor and one reporter using a pen name. Its owner is anonymous, having registered the site with the U.S. firm “Domains By Proxy” whose catch line, beaming out from its homepage, reads: “Your privacy is nobody’s business but ours.”

The website itself does not provide any contact details. It has no mission statement. It has a small but growing following on Twitter but no branded Facebook page or YouTube channel.

And yet, since PoliticalUK.co.uk started publishing stories at the end of April, the site has amassed more than 3 million interactions on social media, with an average of 5,000 “engagements” for every story it has published — far more than most national newspapers.

«

link to this extract


NY Times columnist Nick Kristof led the charge to get Facebook to censor content, now whining that Facebook censors his content • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

When pushing for FOSTA, Kristof wrote the following:

»

Even if Google were right that ending the immunity for Backpage might lead to an occasional frivolous lawsuit, life requires some balancing.

For example, websites must try to remove copyrighted material if it’s posted on their sites. That’s a constraint on internet freedom that makes sense, and it hasn’t proved a slippery slope. If we’re willing to protect copyrights, shouldn’t we do as much to protect children sold for sex?

«

As we noted at the time, this was an astoundingly ignorant thing to say, but of course now that Kristof helped get the law passed and put many more lives at risk, the “meh, no big deal if there are some more lawsuits or more censorship” attitude seems to be coming back to bite him.

You see, last week, Kristof weighed in on US policy in Yemen. The core of his argument was to discuss the horrific situation of Abrar Ibrahim, a 12-year-old girl who is starving in Yemen, and weighs just 28 pounds. There’s a giant photo of the emaciated Ibrahim atop the article, wearing just a diaper. It packs an emotional punch, just as intended.

But, it turns out that Facebook is blocking that photo of Ibrahim, claiming it is “nudity and sexual content.” And, boy, is Kristof mad about it. [He tweeted his outrage that Facebook “repeatedly blocked the photo”.]

Hey, Nick, you were the one who insisted that Facebook and others in Silicon Valley needed to ban “sexual content” or face criminal liability. You were the one who insisted that any collateral damage would be minor. You were the one who said there was no slippery slope.

Yet, here is a perfect example of why clueless saviors like Kristof always make things worse, freaking out about something they don’t understand, prescribing the exact wrong solution. Moderating billions of pieces of content leads to lots of mistakes.

«

In its way, almost exactly the same mistake as with the famous “napalm girl” in 2016. That one involved the Norwegian prime minister. Facebook’s systems haven’t improved since then.
link to this extract


Central Londoners to be subjected to facial recognition test this week • Ars Technica

Cyrus Farivar:

»

This trial marks the seventh such trial in London since 2016. In addition to the December 17-18 tests, authorities have said there will be three more tests which have yet to be scheduled.

According to the police, these trials, which “will be used overtly with a clear uniformed presence and information leaflets will be disseminated to the public,” are set to take place specifically in the vicinity of Soho, Piccadilly Circus, and Leicester Square.

The Met noted in a statement that anyone who declines to be scanned “will not be viewed as suspicious by police officers.”

Law enforcement in South Wales has also previously tested this technology, among other locales around the United Kingdom. Numerous tests in the United States have shown that this technology can be flawed, particularly when in use against non-white suspects.

Here in the US, the technology has already become quietly pervasive.

«

link to this extract


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Start Up No.975: why YouTube can’t kill its video star, Apple tries to evade Qualcomm, Facebook’s French role, a better Bluetooth?, and more


Would you, could you, should you replace the spring in a pogo stick with repelling magnets? CC-licensed photo by mac morrison on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which aims to help the blind and partially sighted.
Readers in the US: this page shows similar charities in the US. Choose one. Please give as generously as you feel you can.


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. How’s the shopping going? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Can repelling magnets replace the spring in a pogo stick? • K+J Magnetics

»

We receive quite a few questions about replacing compression springs with repelling magnets.  Is it possible?  Can it be done?  What magnets should be used to replace a given spring?

It’s possible, but tricky.  Magnets aren’t a one-to-one replacement – magnets behave differently than springs.

There are many of pros and cons using springy magnets in such situations.  Magnets are more expensive than coil springs, but you can have them act across an air gap.  We’re not going to focus on these comparisons here.  We wanted to explore the differences in the behavior of springs vs. magnets.

Let’s try it!

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There is a problem, though: mechanical springs’ force is linearly proportional to displacement, while magnets’ repulsive force is geometrically proportional to displacement. It would feel weird.


link to this extract


A glimpse into Microsoft history which goes some way to explaining the decline of Windows • Tim Anderson’s IT Writing

Tim Anderson:

»

Why is Windows in decline today? Short answer: because Microsoft lost out and/or gave up on Windows Phone / Mobile.

But how did it get to that point? A significant part of the story is the failure of Longhorn (when two to three years of Windows development was wasted in a big reset), and the failure of Windows 8.

In fact these two things are related. Here’s a post from Justin Chase; it is from back in May but only caught my attention when Jose Fajardo put it on Twitter. Chase was a software engineer at Microsoft between 2008 and 2014.

Chase notes that Internet Explorer (IE) stagnated because many of the developers working on it switched over to work on Windows Presentation Foundation, one of the “three pillars” of Longhorn. I can corroborate this to the extent that I recall a conversation with a senior Microsoft executive at Tech Ed Europe, in pre-Longhorn days, when I asked why not much was happening with IE. He said that the future lay in rich internet-connected applications rather than browser applications. Insightful perhaps, if you look at mobile apps today, but no doubt Microsoft also had in mind locking people into Windows.

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As the post shows, it’s odd how you only see how the dominoes are lined up in retrospect.
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Taxi app warned women to take ‘prudence’ and ‘share ride details with family’ • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

»

Ola, an Indian taxi-hailing giant which staged a high-profile UK launch in August, included the warning to women in a set of terms and conditions on its UK website.

The same terms and conditions also advised women passengers “to share the ride details with family, friends, relatives”.

After being alerted to the presence of the clauses, Ola changed the text of its terms and conditions, blaming a “technical error”.

An Ola spokesperson told Sky News the text was accidentally copied and pasted from a separate set of terms and conditions, which applied “to a specific car-pool service that was previously offered only in India”.

The firm stressed that the warning to women had never been part of its official UK terms and conditions, and that they were “not in any of our current global T&Cs”.

However, their inclusion has raised questions about the licensing process for ride-hailing services, which vets apps such as Ola to ensure they are safe and suitable for use by the public…

…Two of the councils involved, Cardiff City Council and Bristol Council, told Sky News it did not check terms and conditions – which lay out the rules for what is permitted on apps – as part of its vetting process.

“Terms and conditions that are entered into as part of signing up for the app are not part of the application process,” said a spokesperson for Cardiff City Council, which granted Ola a five-year license on 22 May 2018.

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Might change their tune soon.
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Faraday Future CEO’s long trail of debt is finally catching up to him • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

»

Jia Yueting, the CEO and a co-founder of troubled EV startup Faraday Future, has a notorious history with money. While his rise to fame and fortune in China was built partly around his vision — he started a streaming company in 2004 called LeTV, well before Netflix shifted away from DVDs — it was also built on financial debt. For years, he followed a relatively simple formula. He found success with LeTV, borrowed against that success to try new things under the umbrella of “LeEco,” then borrowed against those ventures to do even more, stacking up debt along the way. With China’s economy booming at the time, and a large shadow banking system emerging that made borrowing easy, he was off to the races.

More than a decade later, Jia finds himself living in a mansion — one of a few that he owns, in fact — on the coastal cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes, California. While that might sound like the dream life, Jia isn’t there out of choice. He’s been living there since last summer in self-exile, because that long trail of debt that he built up in China is finally catching up to him.

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When the tide goes out, you discover who’s been swimming naked.

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Huawei Watch GT review: When hardware and software don’t mesh • Ars Technica

Valentina Palladino:

»

The Watch GT has numerous activity- and sleep-tracking sensors inside, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, optical heart-rate monitor, and built-in GPS.

What it doesn’t have are NFC technology for contactless payments or onboard storage for saving music. Both would have complemented the onboard GPS by allowing users to go for a run without their wallets or phones. The Watch GT also doesn’t support Wi-Fi on its own, meaning it won’t receive alerts when your smartphone is out of Bluetooth range. This is a feature we take for granted now on high-end smartwatches like Apple Watches and Wear OS devices, making it noticeably and confusingly absent on the Watch GT.

But Huawei equipped the Watch GT with a battery that’s designed to last a whopping two weeks on a single charge, with heart-rate monitoring turned on. With GPS turned on as well, you should get up to 22 hours of battery life. Huawei goes so far as to say that you could get 30 days of life when you turn heart-rate monitoring off.

I wouldn’t want to turn off heart-rate monitoring because that’s one of the main reasons I wear a smartwatch at all. If you wear a device like this to keep track of your health in general, I don’t recommend turning this feature off. I didn’t and my Watch GT was down to 50% after wearing it for six days and nights, recording one-hour long workouts on all but one of those days. That’s still a stellar battery life and one that puts those of other smartwatches to shame.

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The lack of Wi-Fi helps explain the long battery life – but also means you don’t get alerts when out of your phone’s Bluetooth range. But her key complaint is that you can’t get other exercise apps, such as RunKeeper and so on. That’s unlikely to change.
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What comes next in that contested election in North Carolina • FiveThirtyEight

Nathaniel Rakich on an election to the US House of Representatives, apparently won by 905 votes by the GOP candidate, which is now in doubt over postal ballots:

»

As we highlighted two weeks ago, Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County had unusually high levels of absentee ballots requested or cast. Harris also received an incredibly high proportion of the mail-in absentee votes in Bladen considering how few registered Republicans voted by mail there. Only 19% of Bladen County’s accepted mail-in absentee ballots were cast by registered Republicans, yet mail-in absentee ballots leaned heavily Republican; in every other county in the 9th District, mail-in ballots favored the Democrat.

But new information digs down past the county level to find anomalies in certain types of neighborhoods. In an analysis of absentee-by-mail ballots in the 9th District, Kevin Morris and Myrna Pérez at the Brennan Center for Justice found that mail-in absentee ballots from low-income Census tracts were more likely to have been spoiled (that is, declared invalid) than those from high-income areas in the 9th and those from low-income areas outside the 9th. Low-income neighborhoods also had a higher rate of unreturned mail-in ballots. If someone was in fact running a large-scale election-tampering operation, the increase in unreturned ballots could mean that someone was discarding some legitimate ballots before they could be returned, or that voters themselves were discarding ballots fraudulently requested in their names by someone hoping to intercept them and fill them out. According to Morris and Pérez, this discrepancy in the returned ballot rate could be an indication that lower-income voters were specifically targeted for election fraud.

The Raleigh News & Observer calculated that in Robeson County, 69% of mail-in absentee ballots requested by Native American voters and 75% of those requested by African-American voters were not returned, well out of line with the rest of the district. The Brennan Center also found that nonwhite voters’ ballots were more likely to be spoiled.

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The key part of this story is that the apparent fraud was picked up by statistics: the numbers from different areas didn’t tally with those in Bladen, which was a wild outlier. Data exposes lies as well as truths.
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Why YouTube’s biggest star can’t be cancelled • NY Mag

Max Read:

»

In general, PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity. In 2017, at a little over 50 million subscribers, he lost a lucrative partnership with Disney over a series of videos in which he paid Indian men on the gig website Fiverr — as a sort of black-humored social experiment — to record themselves holding signs saying things like “Death to All Jews”; later that year, he called an opponent a “fucking nigger” while livestreaming a video game. And yet, [Felix] Kjellberg [to give him his real name] remains YouTube’s biggest star, to the tune of 75 million subscribers, 19 billion views, tens of millions of dollars, and the adoration of millions of adolescents worldwide. If you come from outside YouTube, where letting a single N-bomb slip can be enough to end your career permanently, this sequence of events is baffling: How can someone flirt so frequently and so explicitly with racist slurs and anti-Semitic jokes and thrive?

One quick and easy answer is “because YouTube lets him.” There are reasons YouTube doesn’t want to get deeply involved, both cynical (he’s a huge, engagement-driving star) and earnest (YouTube feels uncomfortable wielding its absolute power over its own platform so nakedly) — but it’s important to keep in mind that the company has both the practical and the formal power to remove Kjellberg from its site, or find other ways to punish or limit him, the way a movie studio or television network might distance themselves from an anti-Semitic movie star…

…This dynamic is exacerbated by an evolving sense of persecution on the part of YouTubers and their audiences. As the researcher Crystal Abidin wrote in an excellent explainer of the reaction to Kjellberg’s anti-Semitic joke sign videos, many YouTubers interpreted Wall Street Journal articles about Kjellberg not as neutral reporting but as a tactic in a “a struggle between Influencers and legacy media more generally.” And why shouldn’t they? By the logic of platform rewards systems — which value high-engagement figures — it makes sense to imagine that, as Abidin puts it, “legacy media is capitalizing on the digitally-native popularity of PewDiePie to reel in clicks on their articles,”

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link to this extract


Apple says iOS update will avoid Qualcomm patents, China iPhone ban • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

On Monday, Qualcomm announced that a Chinese court had banned the sale of most iPhone models. However, Apple’s newest models, the iPhone XS and XR, were not covered by the ban because they had not yet been introduced when Qualcomm filed its lawsuit late last year.
Qualcomm remedied that oversight this week, asking the same Chinese court to ban sales of the XS and XR.

But Apple isn’t ready to capitulate to Qualcomm’s demands. The company claims that the ruling is specific to an earlier version of iOS, iOS 11. Apple claims that the current version, iOS 12, doesn’t infringe Qualcomm’s patents—though Qualcomm denies this. The iPhone models mentioned in the ban continue to be available for purchase in China.

Apple has asked a Chinese court to reconsider the ban. And on Friday, Apple told Reuters it would push out a software update to work around Qualcomm’s patents, clearing the way for Apple to continue selling all iPhone models in China. Apple claims that Qualcomm’s patents cover “minor functionality” of the iPhone operating system.

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Probably won’t be that easy; Qualcomm likely feels it’s finally found some winning ground.
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Garmin sets eyes on medical wearables with its latest partnership • Wareable

Hugh Langley:

»

“Combining the sensor data from Garmin wearables with the data capture and analytical expertise of the Actigraph platform creates a powerful solution for many different patient monitoring applications,” said Travis Johnson, global product lead at Garmin Health, in a nice summary statement.

As for how Actigraph benefits, it’s getting access to Garmin’s wearables, which means long battery life – which means better study results.

Back to Garmin: it needs to keep up with Apple and Fitbit, which are phasing into medical-grade offerings themselves. The Apple Watch just became an ECG monitor, while Fitbit promises its wearables will soon be offering similar features.

Garmin has both beat as far as its sports watches go, but it risks falling behind as these wearables transition from fitness trackers to essential medical tools.

The partnership with Actigraph isn’t its first foray into more serious health tracking though. Most recently it announced a partnership with health analytics company Fitabase to aid health research. It also teamed up with Cardiogram to leverage the company’s advanced heart rate technology.

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link to this extract


The “Yellow Vest” riots in France are what happens when Facebook gets involved with local news • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick and Jules Darmanin:

»

what’s happening right now in France isn’t happening in a vacuum. The Yellow Vests movement — named for the protesters’ brightly colored safety vests — is a beast born almost entirely from Facebook. And it’s only getting more popular. Recent polls indicate the majority of France now supports the protesters. The Yellow Vests communicate almost entirely on small, decentralized Facebook pages. They coordinate via memes and viral videos. Whatever gets shared the most becomes part of their platform.

Due to the way algorithm changes made earlier this year interacted with the fierce devotion in France to local and regional identity, the country is now facing some of the worst riots in many years — and in Paris, the worst in half a century.

This isn’t the first time real-life violence has followed a viral Facebook storm and it certainly won’t be the last. Much has already been written about the anti-Muslim Facebook riots in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the WhatsApp lynchings in Brazil and India. Well, the same process is happening in Europe now, on a massive scale. Here’s how Facebook tore France apart…

…These pages [fuelling the protests] weren’t exploding in popularity by coincidence. The same month that [a Portuguese bricklayer called Leandro Antonio] Nogueira set up his first [Facebook protest] group [in January], Mark Zuckerberg announced two algorithm changes to Facebook’s News Feed that would “prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.” The updates were meant to combat sensationalism, misinformation, and political polarization by emphasizing local networks over publisher pages. One change upranks news from local publishers only. Another change made the same month prioritizes posts from friends and family, hoping to inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments of posts.

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Facebook is now so powerful that little tweaks to its Newsfeed can destabilise countries by conjoining all the most crazy conspiracy theorists. Happy holidays, everyone!
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New Bluetooth tech could make AirPod clones much better • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

»

Apple’s AirPods use standard A2DP to connect to the phone, but that’s only good for one connection. Apple has its own Bluetooth stack and hardware that allows the second earbud to sniff the first connection and establish a link. Other companies use technologies like Near Field Magnetic Induction to bridge the two earbuds. This is expensive, and the results are often imperfect.

You might not be familiar with Tempow, but it’s been building to this announcement for years. Probably its most visible partnership was the Moto X4 last year. That phone included a feature called “Wireless Sound System.” Using Tempow’s custom Bluetooth stack, you could pair multiple Bluetooth devices to the phone to create a surround sound system. Now it’s offering to license the technology specifically for wireless earbuds, which it calls Tempow True Wireless. Unlike Apple’s AirPod approach, Tempow’s multi-point Bluetooth tech uses standard chipsets — it’s just the software that changes. According to the company, Tempow True Wireless saves bandwidth because you don’t need to re-transmit sound between the earbuds. That means high-fidelity codecs like LDAC are within reach. It also says battery life could improve by up to 50% for the same reason.

The primary drawback is that you’d need earbuds and a phone that understands the Tempow-hacked Bluetooth stack. So, the phone knows it can stream the left channel to one earbud and the right to the other. Meanwhile, the earbuds know how to broadcast their identities and operate as separate audio targets. They’d be like tiny individual Bluetooth speakers in your ears.

Tempow is just announcing the availability of Tempow True Wireless — it doesn’t have any partners yet.

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Expect it will be bidding hard at CES to find them, or announce them. It’s only a few weeks away.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.974: the trouble with baby ads, Apple kills artist music pages, Russia’s too-human robot, France checks les facts, et plus


From next year, your smart speaker might be able to distinguish the sound of this can being opened. CC-licensed photo by TheFoodJunk on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Centrepoint, which aims to give homeless young people a future.
Readers in the US: this page shows similar charities in the US. Choose one. Please give as generously as you feel you can.


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

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

Dear tech companies: I don’t want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn – The Washington Post

Gillian Brockell:

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Dear Tech Companies:

I know you knew I was pregnant. It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, silly me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up. What can I say, I am your ideal “engaged” user.

You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girlfriends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint.” And I bet Amazon.com even told you my due date, Jan. 24, when I created that Prime registry.

But didn’t you also see me googling “braxton hicks vs. preterm labor” and “baby not moving”? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

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Facebook’s VP of advertising responded, with a heartfelt response, to explain that the ads she was then shown, which thought she was now a mother, could have been blocked (on Facebook, at least) in Settings – Ad Preferences – Hide ad topics – Parenting.

A long way down though; what we truly want is systems that do watch and are attentive to us – including the bad part.
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Smarter voice assistants recognize your favorite brands—and health • Communications of the ACM

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At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a boost to the artificial intelligence (AI) that allows smart speakers like the Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homepod to reliably recognize everyday sounds—and to act on them—is set to lend the devices powerful new capabilities, including the ability to recognize your favorite brands from the noises they make.

Based on sound recognition technology from a British AI startup called Audio Analytic, these capabilities include allowing voice assistants to recognize the sounds of the brands you use day to day, to boost your home’s security by listening out for out-of-the-ordinary “anomalous” sounds around the house, and, for the first time, to collect health data by recognizing coughs, sneezes, sniffles, yawns, and snores, in order to recommend medicines, or pharmacies.

…[But] University of Michigan engineers Florian Schaub and Josephine Lau told the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSAW 2018) in November that smart speaker makers need to design effective, usable privacy controls—because the risk to our privacy is increasing as voice assistants are fast migrating beyond tabletop speakers to our cars, smartwatches, fitness trackers, wearables, wireless headsets, TV streaming boxes, security cameras, and smart heating/lighting controllers.

All these platforms are able to exploit the patent pending “brand sonification” technology that Audio Analytic will be plugging at CES 2019, the Consumer Technology Association’s annual event in Las Vegas in January.

The basic idea behind brand sonification, according to Audio Analytic CEO Chris Mitchell, “is to have voice assistant devices respond to the sounds that brands make when they are used.”

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“The sounds that brands make when they are used”? The advertising-oriented mind is so weird.
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Apple Music removes ability for artists to post to Connect, posts removed from Artist Pages and For You • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

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Apple Music Connect appears to slowly be going the way of iTunes Ping. Apple has started notifying Apple Music artists that it is removing the ability for artists to post content to Apple Music Connect, and previously posted Apple Music Connect content is being removed from the For You section and Artist Pages in Apple Music. Connect content will still be viewable through search results on Apple Music, but Apple is removing artist-submitted Connect posts from search in May

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Nobody will be able to update it from the end of this month. So it’s dead. That’s the second time Apple has tried this, and the second time it’s failed. As an artist – or an artist’s social media manager – why would you want to update that when you could do it on your own site? Or on Twitter? Or Facebook? Apple has never got social networks right.
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Apple plans new $1bn campus for Austin, Texas • Reuters

Aishwarya Venugopal:

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The iPhone maker also said it plans to expand in Seattle, San Diego and Culver City, California, and add hundreds of jobs in Pittsburgh, New York and Boulder, Colorado, over the next three years.

Apple said at the start of the year it would invest $30bn in the United States, taking advantage of a windfall from U.S. President Donald Trump’s sweeping tax code overhaul.

The 133-acre campus in Austin will be less than a mile from Apple’s existing facilities and initially have 5,000 employees. The jobs created would be in engineering, research and development, operations and finance.

Amazon.com in November said it will create more than 25,000 jobs in both New York and the Washington, D.C. area by opening massive new offices. The two technology companies chose cities with a wealth of white-collar workers and high employment, bypassing other regions that may have required more investment.

Austin is one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities with a population of nearly 1 million, and is home to the University of Texas and other tech companies including Dell Technologies Inc in nearby Round Rock, Texas, and IBM.

Apple’s existing facility in north Austin has more than 6,000 workers, the most outside its headquarters in Cupertino, California. With the new campus, the company will become the largest private employer in the city.

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link to this extract


YouTube Rewind hides its community’s biggest moments to appease advertisers • The Verge

Julia Alexander:

»

The message from YouTube to marketers was clear: these are the people you want to invest time to watch and whose videos you should run ads on.

Jake and Logan Paul don’t appear in this year’s Rewind. Neither does KSI. PewDiePie, David Dobrik, Shane Dawson, and Erika Costell — some of the most talked-about YouTube creators this year — are also absent. It’s unclear who was asked and who wasn’t, but their absences are some of the biggest questions fans have after watching the video.

The reaction from the YouTube community is openly hostile; there are more than 250,000 downvotes on the video at the time of this writing — nearly 100,000 more than those who upvoted it. It’s not that YouTube’s video completely misses the mark. There are references to trends like mukbang videos (a popular food challenge), conversations about creator burnout, spotlights on popular collaboration teams like Sister Squad (Emma Chamberlain, James Charles, and the Dolan Twins) and, of course, Fortnite.

Ignoring the moments that YouTube’s community cares about and pays attention to, like a boxing match that brought in nearly 1 million live viewers, hides an enormous part of the platform’s cultural shift. It feels disingenuous, like YouTube is hiding its uglier side under a carpet while showing guests around.

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This year’s YouTube Rewind is now the most disliked video in the history of YouTube – 9m dislikes v 2m likes.
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‘Russia’s most modern robot’ revealed to be just a person in a suit • The Independent

Andrew Griffin:

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Video of the event went around the world, showing him taking part in banter with people on stage and being led through a series of dances. Its success was used to encourage children to explore robotics, and as proof of a technological breakthrough.

It was clear that if the robot was real it would be one of the most advanced examples of robotics in the world. Soon after that celebration, however, it became clear that it was so lifelike because it was literally alive, with a man standing inside its body controlling its functions.

Local reports straight away noted a variety of things wrong with the robot.

It wasn’t clear where the sensors that would allow it to take in the world were placed, for one. It only seemed to have LED lights in its head, rather than any visible camera or other sensors to allow it to understand its environment.

It also appeared to have come entirely out of nowhere. The robots made by Boston Dynamics – often touted as the leading company in creating robots that move like humans – have taken years to develop even simple abilities, and iheir movements are far behind some of those shown during the demonstration.

Its dancing seemed a little too human, too: its movements were clumsy – like a person trying to dance while struggling with the weight of a robot suit, not a robot that had been taught to dance, as claimed.

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Just explain how “a person trying to dance while struggling with the weight” looks different from a clumsy robot that has been taught to dance?
link to this extract


In France, school lessons ask: which Twitter post should you trust? • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Elian Peltier:

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A group of teenagers recently swarmed into a room at Collège Henri Barbusse near Lyon, France, for a class typically dedicated to learning Spanish. But on that Wednesday, an unusual lesson awaited them.

Five posts from Twitter were up on the board. The assignment: Decipher whether they were trustworthy or suspect.

The ninth graders quickly focused on a post by the far-right politician Marine Le Pen, related to a headline-grabbing incident in France when a teenager had threatened a teacher. One student said Ms. Le Pen’s post could be trusted because her account had been verified by Twitter. But Samia Houbiri, 15, piped up that Ms. Le Pen simply wanted attention.

“She picks a topic, she exaggerates things, and then people will say, ‘She’s right, I should vote for her,’” Ms. Houbiri said.
At the front of the class, Sandra Laffont, a journalist teaching the workshop, nodded and said, “Politicians may sometimes exaggerate reality because their goal is to convince people that their ideas are the right ones.”

The class was part of a novel experiment by a government to work with journalists and educators to combat the spread of online misinformation. France is coordinating one of the world’s largest national media and internet literacy efforts to teach students, starting as early as in middle school, how to spot junk information online.

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Bonne idée.
link to this extract


‘They don’t care’: Facebook factchecking in disarray as journalists push to cut ties • The Guardian

Sam Levin:

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[Brooke] Binkowski, who left [fact-checking site] Snopes earlier this year and now runs her own factchecking site, which does not partner with Facebook, said the Facebook-Snopes partnership quickly became counterproductive. During early conversations with Facebook, Binkowski said she tried to raise concerns about misuse of the platform abroad, such as the explosion of hate speech and misinformation during the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and other violent propaganda.

“I was bringing up Myanmar over and over and over,” she said. “They were absolutely resistant.”

Binkowski, who previously reported on immigration and refugees, said Facebook largely ignored her: “I strongly believe that they are spreading fake news on behalf of hostile foreign powers and authoritarian governments as part of their business model.”

Kim LaCapria recently left Snopes as a content manager and factchecker partly due to her frustrations with the Facebook arrangement. She said it quickly seemed clear that Facebook wanted the “appearance of trying to prevent damage without actually doing anything” and that she was particularly upset to learn that Facebook was paying Snopes: “That felt really gross … Facebook has one mission and factchecking websites should have a completely different mission.”

Binkowski said that on at least one occasion, it appeared that Facebook was pushing reporters to prioritize debunking misinformation that affected Facebook advertisers, which she thought crossed a line: “You’re not doing journalism any more. You’re doing propaganda.”

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Facebook didn’t like this, and put out a grumpy response, principally about the advertiser/misinformation point in that latter paragraph.
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Word processor inventor Evelyn Berezin has died • Quartz

Corinne Purtill:

»

After graduating from New York University in 1945 with a degree in physics, Berezin became interested in the nascent computer industry. Her particular expertise was building computing networks for a specific task. In 1962, as an employee of the company Teleregister, she built a computerized booking system for United Airlines, the first system of its kind.

Yet opportunities for women in tech’s early days were extremely limited. Berezin told NPR that a 1960 job offer from the New York Stock Exchange was rescinded because, the hiring manager told her apologetically, “They said that you were a woman, you’d have to be on the stock market floor from time to time. And the language on the floor was not for a woman’s ears.”

If she wanted to move up at a company, she realized, she would have to create it herself. She founded Redactron in 1969 with the goal of creating a tool that would revolutionize the workplace—the word processor. Two years later, Redactron brought to market the Data Secretary, a device that transformed the laborious work of producing documents. Redactron sold 10,000 of its $8,000 machines to law firms and corporate offices before being sold in 1976, as its larger competitor IBM flooded the market with alternatives, according to the New York Times.

Berezin went on to serve on the boards of several companies and as a fellow of the Computer History Museum. She was inducted in 2011 into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.

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Not into the Technology Hall of Fame? Those two inventions are basically what keeps the modern world going.
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Make the iPad more like the Mac – Medium

Radu Dutzan got Luna Display, which turns the iPad into a touchscreen for the Mac:

»

On the macPad, things are radically different. You need to keep in mind that touches are immediately interpreted as clicks by Luna, so scrolling works only with two fingers, and tapping and dragging with one finger (aka swiping) is usually interpreted as a click-drag gesture that triggers selection on the Mac. That puts you on your toes, because swiping is a very natural gesture on touch devices—you don’t even think about it. But once you wrap your head around this, you see that tapping and dragging to select is actually a much more efficient interaction that whatever we’re doing today on iOS text fields, or in apps like Keynote for iOS. Seriously, what are we doing with text and object selection on the iPad? Whatever it is, it’s kinda awful, especially after trying out tap-and-drag selection on the macPad.

There are so many places where the iPad could benefit from some adaptation of tap-and-drag selection. It’s such a better model that imagining the interaction is worth the effort: there already is a heuristic somewhere on iOS that starts measuring for how long you’ve kept your finger still after starting a touch in order to decide whether to transition from a scrolling gesture to a drag. That same heuristic could be applied to iPad text fields and layout apps such as Keynote: after holding a touch still on a text field or on the canvas for a set amount of time, the gesture could become a selection drag, and moving your finger could begin selecting the text or objects encompassed by the net dragged distance.

What about the desktop? Well, what about it? The Mac has it because its fundamental organizational unit—its main metaphorical currency—is files, and since we keep files scattered around IRL, we have a digital equivalent on the Mac’s desktop. The iPad’s currency is apps, so if we have an iPad OS with windows, spaces, and Mission Control, and a classic icon-based app launcher on a separate modal layer, then what should be on the ‘base’ layer? Well, what about widgets and a set of user-defined or suggested shortcuts?

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Inch by inch, this stuff is getting figured out, it seems.
link to this extract


Totally non-evil ICE arrests 170 immigrants trying to save babies from baby jails • Wonkette

Stephen Robinson:

»

It’s the holiday season, and in between debating the merits of Love Actually and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” you’ve probably wondered what’s going on with all those migrant children the Trump administration separated from their families. Turns out they’ve been used as collateral for even greater acts of evil.

The friendly folks at US Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) announced Tuesday that federal authorities have arrested 170 immigrants who came forward to sponsor migrant children in government custody. This is the result of a new, fun rule the Department of Homeland Security put into effect this summer. It allows immigration authorities to examine the criminal background and legal status of anyone who attempts to sponsor the unaccompanied minors — usually parents or close relatives already in the country. They can even check the papers of any other adults living in their home, including Grandma.

It’s a masterclass in evil: use defenseless children as bait to lure immigrants to the authorities. It’s like when scofflaws show up at police headquarters to collect their “free prize,” which is actually just jail. Of course, this is far more repulsive because the government is preying on immigrants’ concern for the well-being of their family members. This is usually why it’s Lex Luthor who kidnaps Lois Lane or Martha Kent. You don’t see Superman holding Lex’s sister hostage in return for an orderly surrender. Although ruthlessly efficient, it would lead to a much shorter and more depressing movie.

«

Wow. That is really benthically evil. One has to imagine that people sat around a table and planned this to see quite how evil they were; the banality of planning it, minuting it, and getting it carried out. And you can also bet they were pleased with themselves. The children, meanwhile, are still in jail for no offence they knowingly committed.
link to this extract


Apple can’t win over media with its old approach • Bloomberg

Shira Ovide:

»

Bloomberg News detailed on Wednesday why some news and magazine publishers are wary of Apple’s effort to refashion Texture, a company Apple acquired this year that offers a collection of digital magazines for $10 a month. One concern is that Apple could lure publications’ current subscribers, who might save money by reading the same articles on a revamped Texture instead.

It struck me that Apple is repeating many of the same missteps from its earlier digital news and magazine hub called Newsstand and from its multiple attempts at subscriptions for online television. And I’m equally surprised that Apple’s vision for Newsstand 2.0 — or at least what journalists have unearthed so far — seems unoriginal and potentially misguided. 

Reading about Apple’s negotiations, I had flashbacks to 2010, when I spent a chunk of time writing about Apple’s first significant stab at an iPad storefront for newspapers and magazines. What Apple called Newsstand wasn’t a single fee for an array of publications like what Apple is developing now, but fears about Apple cannibalizing existing sales and controlling data on publications’ subscribers were sticking points with many partners then, too. Newsstand flopped, and participating publishers wasted time and resources on Steve Jobs’s ill-conceived plan. 

It was utterly predictable that many of those same publishers would have similar misgivings about Newsstand 2.0, but Apple’s reported pitch hasn’t changed in eight years: We’re Apple, and this will draw masses who wouldn’t have otherwise subscribed to your newspapers or magazines. Apple may be right, but the publishers that Apple really wants believe they’re better off luring readers on their own without Apple serving as a middleman.

«

The content game isn’t what it was back in 2002-3, when Steve Jobs negotiated with record labels to create the iTunes Music Store.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.973: making effects special again, Verizon’s big writedown, Apple getting medical?, China’s listening cars, and more


Were the Chinese behind the hack of the Starwood – and Marriott – hotels? That’s the growing suspicion. CC-licensed photo by Matt@TWN on Flickr.


It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Crisis, the charity aiming to end homelessness.
Please give as generously as you feel you can.


A selection of 11 links for you. By a simple majority. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Marriott data breach is traced to Chinese hackers as US readies crackdown on Beijing • The New York Times

David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth, Glenn Thrush and Alan Rappeport:

»

While American intelligence agencies have not reached a final assessment of who performed the hacking, a range of firms brought in to assess the damage quickly saw computer code and patterns familiar to operations by Chinese actors.

The Marriott database contains not only credit card information but passport data. Lisa Monaco, a former homeland security adviser under Mr. Obama, noted last week at a conference that passport information would be particularly valuable in tracking who is crossing borders and what they look like, among other key data.

But officials on Tuesday said it was only part of an aggressive operation whose centerpiece was the 2014 hacking into the Office of Personnel Management. At the time, the government bureau loosely guarded the detailed forms that Americans fill out to get security clearances — forms that contain financial data; information about spouses, children and past romantic relationships; and any meetings with foreigners.

Such information is exactly what the Chinese use to root out spies, recruit intelligence agents and build a rich repository of Americans’ personal data for future targeting. With those details and more that were stolen from insurers like Anthem, the Marriott data adds another critical element to the intelligence profile: travel habits.

James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said the Chinese have collected “huge pots of data” to feed a Ministry of State Security database seeking to identify American spies — and the Chinese people talking to them.

“Big data is the new wave for counterintelligence,” Mr. Lewis said.

«

link to this extract


I was a senior VP of technology at Starwood – here’s my take on the guest data breach • PhocusWire

Israel del Rio:

»

Marriott seems to suggest the breach was made in the reservation system. However, it is unlikely this system would have had 500 million records, given the practice to remove booking records a number of days after checkout.

Even assuming half a million rooms in Starwood’s inventory at 90% occupancy, with average lengths of stay of two days, and up to two years of advance booking, such a database would not exceed 200 million records.

As for the SPG database, it would contain one record from each SPG member, but not even under the most optimistic scenarios would Starwood have had 500 million registered SPG guests.

This leaves the Data Warehouse. The Data Warehouse would contain the booking records for several prior years, and it clearly could contain 500 million records. This is most likely the area from which the data was stolen.

However, given that some of that data had already been migrated to Marriott, it is hard to say for certain whether the breach occurred in the Starwood system, the Marriott system, or in transit as a result of exposure during the Extract‐Transform‐Load process used during the migration.

The second point appears to indicate Marriott first detected the issue back in September of this year (presumably by using a traffic detection tool).

We do not know when such a tool was first used, but what’s most confounding is Marriott’s assurance that the breach first occurred in 2014. If the detection tool was used prior to this September, why hadn’t the breach been detected earlier? And if the tool was not used earlier, how can they be so sure the breach occurred in 2014?

«

The more this story goes on, the stranger it gets.

link to this extract


Special effects: can they be special again? • Vulture

Bilge Ebiri:

»

[Visual effects – VFX – guru Paul] Franklin points to the work he’s done with [Interstellar/Inception/Dunkirk/Dark Knight series director Christopher] Nolan as an example of a filmmaker who gives his collaborators room to explore while staying committed to an overall vision. The director famously prefers practical effects and tries to avoid heavy CGI whenever he can. “He doesn’t like using green screens and blue screens, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it slows down the shoot,” Franklin says. “And from the point of view of the cast, there’s nothing for them to look at and react to.”

Even on Interstellar — a space-travel epic that might have been a prime candidate for loads of green screen — Franklin and his team [at his VFX company Double Negative] used front projection methods, taking massive screens and used digital projectors to throw images on them, “to create the views of what was outside the windows of the aircraft.” This is not a new method: “It’s a technique that goes back to old Roy Rogers movies, or to Cary Grant in his car driving across the Amalfi coast in To Catch a Thief, even though he’s actually on a soundstage in Burbank. But Chris realized that the advances in digital projection meant that he could do it at a much higher level of quality than had been possible in the past.”

Franklin and [the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor on Blade Runner 2049, Paul] Lambert furthered that process on Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, which also mostly avoided using green screens. This time, instead of using projectors to throw images on a screen, they built a massive wraparound high-definition LED screen outside of the set, so that performers could act against images that otherwise would have been added months later in post. The intensely beautiful X-15 experimental flight sequence that opens the film was shot this way, and the realism achieved also meant that the camera captured little offhand details that would have taken VFX artists weeks to do with computers. “Because you had the content on the screen, when you see Ryan [Gosling] bursting through the atmosphere, you can then see the beautiful chromatic shift on the horizon,” recalls Lambert. “That shot is in camera; Ryan is actually looking at the horizon. It’s reflected in his visor, and it’s reflected in his eye. I used to do that work myself. I used to be a compositor. I know how tricky it is to do that in post.”

«

Absorbing read; when the VFX take over from the story, everyone loses. When they’re subsidiary, good story wins.
link to this extract


Verizon admits defeat with $4.6bn AOL-Yahoo writedown • Bloomberg

Scott Moritz:

»

The wireless carrier slashed the value of its AOL and Yahoo acquisitions by $4.6bn, an acknowledgment that tough competition for digital advertising is leading to shortfalls in revenue and profit.

The move will erase almost half the value of the division it had been calling Oath, which houses AOL, Yahoo and other businesses like the Huffington Post.

“The hype of Oath has been over for some time,” Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche said in a note Tuesday. She likened the writedown to “ripping off the Oath band-aid.”

The episode offered a silver lining for investors. Rather than attempt a megadeal like AT&T Inc.’s $85bn acquisition of Time Warner Inc., Verizon only spent about $9.5bn in the past three years buying fading web giants. Though the bet hasn’t paid off, it at least stumbled on a smaller scale.

The revision of the Oath division’s accounting leaves its goodwill balance – a measure of the intangible value of an acquisition – at about $200m, Verizon said in a filing Tuesday.

«

Astonishing to think of the inflated value there. And people were wondering if we were in a tech bubble?
link to this extract


Apple has dozens of doctors on staff • CNBC

Christina Farr:

»

Apple has dozens of medical doctors working across its various teams, say two people familiar with the company’s hiring, showing how serious it is about health tech.

The hires could help Apple win over doctors — potentially its harshest critics — as it seeks to develop and integrate health technologies into the Apple Watch, iPad and iPhone. It also suggests that Apple will build applications that can help people with serious medical problems, and not just cater to the “worried well,” as many have speculated.

These hires are not just for show, according to people familiar with the doctors and their roles. Many haven’t disclosed their role at Apple at all, which is commonplace at a company that prides itself on secrecy. One example is Stanford pediatrician Rajiv Kumar, who has worked there for several years. CNBC was able to locate 20 physicians at Apple via LinkedIn searches and sources familiar, and other people said as many as 50 doctors work there. Apple has more than 130,000 employees globally.

«

Clever way to increase the stickiness of its devices: if they’re better informed about your health, why are you going to give them up just for something cheaper?
link to this extract


Lenovo tells Asia-Pacific staff: Work lappy with your unencrypted data on it has been nicked • The Register

Paul Kunert:

»

A corporate-issued laptop lifted from a Lenovo employee in Singapore contained a cornucopia of unencrypted payroll data on staff based in the Asia Pacific region, The Register can exclusively reveal.

Details of the massive screw-up reached us from Lenovo staffers, who are simply bewildered at the monumental mistake. Lenovo has sent letters of shame to its employees confessing the security snafu.

“We are writing to notify you that Lenovo has learned that one of our Singapore employees recently had the work laptop stolen on 10 September 2018,” the letter from Lenovo HR and IT Security, dated 21 November, stated.

“Unfortunately, this laptop contained payroll information, including employee name, monthly salary amounts and bank account numbers for Asia Pacific employees and was not encrypted.”

Lenovo employs more than 54,000 staff worldwide, the bulk of whom are in China.

The letter stated there is currently “no indication” that the sensitive employee data has been “used or compromised”, and Lenovo said it is working with local police to “recover the stolen device”.

«

link to this extract


In China, your car could be talking to the government • Associated PREss

Erika Kinetz:

»

When Shan Junhua bought his white Tesla Model X, he knew it was a fast, beautiful car. What he didn’t know is that Tesla constantly sends information about the precise location of his car to the Chinese government.

Tesla is not alone. China has called upon all electric vehicle manufacturers in China to make the same kind of reports — potentially adding to the rich kit of surveillance tools available to the Chinese government as President Xi Jinping steps up the use of technology to track Chinese citizens.

“I didn’t know this,” said Shan. “Tesla could have it, but why do they transmit it to the government? Because this is about privacy.”

More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and U.S.-listed electric vehicle start-up NIO, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to government-backed monitoring centers, The Associated Press has found. Generally, it happens without car owners’ knowledge.

The automakers say they are merely complying with local laws, which apply only to alternative energy vehicles. Chinese officials say the data is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

«

Have a look at the website if you like. That’s quite a thing.
link to this extract


Facebook’s hidden battle against ad-blockers • BBC News

»

The methods Facebook uses to thwart ad-blocking technology have been criticised by web developers.

The social network injects dozens of lines of code in every page to make it harder for ad blockers to detect and hide sponsored posts. But that makes the website less efficient and stops software such as screen readers used by visually impaired users from working properly. The BBC has contacted Facebook for comment.

In order to block advertising, developers look for patterns in a website’s code that can be consistently identified and hidden. It would be easy for a plug-in to spot the word “sponsored” or to find a container labelled “ad” inside the webpage code, so companies, including Facebook, use coding tricks to obfuscate their ads.

The tricks Facebook uses to fool ad-blocking plug-ins include:
• breaking up the word “sponsored” into small chunks only one or two letters long
• inserting extra letters, as in “SpSonSsoSredS”, hidden to the viewer
• adding the word to all regular posts on the news feed, even ones that are not ads, and then using another piece of code to hide it on the non-ads.

«

The convenience of the disabled is always the collateral damage in such wars; this one is ongoing, though the adblocking developers are doing their work in the open by posting what they’re looking for and finding on GitHub.
link to this extract


The end of IBM/Lotus Notes • Web Informant

David Strom, pointing out that Notes (and Domino, the server side) was sold to India’s HCL last week, and nobody noticed:

»

Until Notes came along, PCs were personal productivity tools, with the majority of uses being spreadsheets, word processing and presentations. Notes created a social use for personal computers and enabled teams of people, spread across geographies, to communicate, collaborate and share information in a way which was not possible previously. It was the tool that moved PCs and networks onto every desk in every office of PW around the world.”

This is an important point, and one that I didn’t think much about until I started corresponding recently with Laube. If you credit Notes as being the first social software tool, it actually predates Facebook by more than a decade. Even MySpace, which was the largest social network for a few years (and had more traffic than Google too), was created in the early 2000s.

Notes was also ahead of its time in another area. “Notes was a precursor to both the web and social media,” says Laube. “It was all about easily publishing and sharing information in a managed way suited to business use. It is the ease of management and the ability to control information access within Notes securely which allowed its rapid adoption by business.” Laube reminded me that back then, information security was barely recognized as necessary by IT departments.

This isn’t completely an accurate picture, mainly because Notes was focused on the enterprise, not the consumer. Notes “mixed email with databases with insanely secure data replication and custom apps,” said David Gewirtz in his column this week for ZDnet. He was an early advocate of Notes and wrote numerous books and edited many newsletters about its enterprise use.

«

I used Notes in two newspapers, and knew of people in other newspapers who used it. We only ever got the email part, which was calamitously bad. A piece I wrote in 2006 bemoaning this fact drew a huge response: users agreed, while administrators said it was wonderful because it was so secure and easy to administer.

History shows the users won. Yay.
link to this extract


Google Chat is the worst desktop chat program I have ever used • Tech Nexus

»

Google Chat is the worst desktop chat program that I have ever used.

How bad is it exactly? Let’s just say if I had to choose between using Google Chat and signing up for Comcast I’d choose Comcast every time.

Details? Okay.

Google Chat for Desktop login opens your default browser to login

Sounds reasonable right? Wrong.

A self contained application should need no browser at all to login.

I am required to use Google Chat for work. I use Google Chrome for work and Firefox for my personal stuff. I do not ever mix the two. I do not want my personal Gmail cookies anywhere near my work Gmail cookies. Mixing the two is a recipe for my work having access to my personal logins or accidentally syncing contacts. Do I really want to accidentally pocket dial one of my coworkers? Not really.

Guess what Google Chat does?

Clicking that goes to my default browser of course. Because you’re not allowed to login to your work account on a secondary browser apparently. I literally have to copy/paste its OAuth login URL to Chrome myself.

Even more ludicrous: since this is all using OAuth, Google Chat literally hosts its own web server on your localhost so that it can redirect to itself upon success.

And this is just the login.

«

Things, as you guess, go downhill from there.
link to this extract


Why was “911” chosen as the emergency phone number? • HowStuffWorks

»

Prior to 1968, there was no standard emergency number. So how did 911 become one of the most recognizable numbers in the United States? Choosing 911 as the universal emergency number was not an arbitrary selection, but it wasn’t a difficult one either. In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) met with AT&T to establish such an emergency number. They wanted a number that was short and easy to remember. More importantly, they needed a unique number, and since 911 had never been designated for an office code, area code or service code, that was the number they chose.

Soon after, the U.S. Congress agreed to support 911 as the emergency number standard for the nation and passed legislation making 911 the exclusive number for any emergency calling service.

«

Thanks to those who provided links explaining this.
link to this extract


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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.972: a new superconductivity high?, Equifax lashed, SuperMicro says nope, what’s a headphone jack worth?, Dell’s return, and more


Yes, but why is this the emergency phone number in the UK? CC-licensed photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.


Charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). (Neglect is the most common form of child abuse.)


A selection of 10 links for you. Not for sale in North Dakota. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The record for high-temperature superconductivity has been smashed again • MIT Technology Review

»

The history of superconductivity is littered with dubious claims of high-temperature activity that later turn out to be impossible to reproduce. Indeed, physicists have a name for this: USOs, or unidentified superconducting objects.

So new claims of high-temperature superconductivity have to be treated with caution. Having said that, the news today that the record for high-temperature superconductivity has been smashed is worth looking at in more detail.

The work comes from the lab of Mikhail Eremets and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. Eremets and his colleagues say they have observed lanthanum hydride (LaH10) superconducting at the sweltering temperature of 250 K, or –23 °C. That’s warmer than the current temperature at the North Pole. “Our study makes a leap forward on the road to the room-temperature superconductivity,” say the team.

«

Woo-hoo!

»

(The caveat is that the sample has to be under huge pressure: 170 gigapascals, or about half the pressure at the center of the Earth.)

«

Oh. But they do have two of three key pieces of evidence that they’ve really found superconductivity. It seems that the cosmic joke about room-temperature superconductivity will be that you have it, but only if you have centre-of-the-planet pressures.
link to this extract


Scathing House Oversight report: Equifax data breach was “entirely preventable” • Fast Company

Melissa Locker:

»

after a 14-month investigation, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has issued a scathing 96-page report saying the consumer credit reporting agency aggressively collected consumer data without taking the necessary steps to protect the trove of information. “Equifax… failed to implement an adequate security program to protect this sensitive data. As a result, Equifax allowed one of the largest data breaches in US history. Such a breach was entirely preventable,” the report says.

The report blames the breach on a series of failures, including “a culture of cybersecurity complacency,” outdated technology systems, and Equifax’s failure to patch a “known critical vulnerability.” The committee also noted the company’s failure to take appropriate measures to inform consumers about the breach and their options for protecting their data. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to warn Equifax that this wouldn’t end well for them. The report comes as the company still faces a variety of class-action lawsuits over the breach and the FTC is still side-eyeing the company after publicly confirming it is investigating the data breach.

«

Reached for a quote, Equifax said it wasn’t fair that it didn’t get time to review the report. But you know that this won’t make the tiniest difference. They’ll still keep grabbing more data.
link to this extract


Why call 999 for an emergency? • BBC

Gary Holland:

»

The General Post Office, which ran the telephone network, proposed a three digit number that could trigger a special signal and flashing light at the exchange. The operators could then divert their attention to these priority calls.

In order to find the new emergency number in the dark or thick smoke it was suggested an end number was used so it could be found easily by touch.

111 was rejected because it could be triggered by faulty equipment or lines rubbing together. 222 would have connected to the Abbey local telephone exchange as numbers in the early telephone network represented the first three letters (ABBey = 222, 1 was not used due to the accidental triggering). 000 could not be used as the first 0 would have dialled the operator.

999 was deemed the sensible choice.

The system came into place on 1 July 1937 covering a 12 mile radius from London’s Oxford Circus. Several people have claimed to have made the first 999 call on the 2nd or 3rd July.

«

OK, this is from 2010, but it caught my eye. Looking forward to any American readers explaining why their emergency number is 911.
link to this extract


GoPro to move US-bound camera production out of China • Reuters

Arjun Panchadar:

»

GoPro on Monday took the first steps to move most of its US-bound camera production out of China by the summer of 2019 to counter the potential impact from any new tariffs.

The company had previously said it was being “very proactive” about the situation regarding tariffs as US and China ramped up its bitter trade war, in which both nations have imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of each other’s imports.

GoPro said international-bound camera production will remain in China.

“It’s important to note that we own our own production equipment while our manufacturing partner provides the facilities, so we expect to make this move at a relatively low cost,” said chief financial officer Brian McGee.

«

Costs imposed by tariffs. And then tariffs on the end product. Not really going to help GoPro, which is struggling to find profitability.
link to this extract


Opinion: Microsoft browser shift has major implications for software and devices • TechSpot

Bob O’Donnell:

»

From traditional enterprise software vendors like SAP, Oracle, and IBM through modern cloud-based players like Salesforce, Slack, and Workday, the ability to focus more of their efforts on a single target platform should open up a wealth of innovation and reduce difficult cross-platform testing efforts.

But it’s not just the software world that’s going to be impacted by this decision. Semiconductors and the types of devices that we may start to use could be affected as well. For example, Microsoft is leveraging this shift to Chromium as part of an effort to bring broader software compatibility to Arm-based CPUs, particularly the Windows on Snapdragon offerings from Qualcomm, like the brand-new Snapdragon 8cx. By working on bringing the underlying compatibility of Chromium to Windows-focused Arm64 processors, Microsoft is going to make it significantly easier for software developers to create applications that run on these devices. This would remove the last significant hurdle that has kept these devices from reaching mainstream buyers in the consumer and enterprise world, and it could turn them into serious contenders versus traditional X86-based CPUs from Intel and AMD.

On the device side, this move also opens up the possibility for a wider variety of form factors and for more ambient computing types of services. By essentially enabling a single, consistent target platform that could leverage the essential input characteristics of desktop devices (mice and keyboards), mobile devices (touch), and voice-based interfaces, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for a potentially fascinating computing future. Imagine, for example, a foldable multi-screen device that offers something like a traditional Android front screen, then unfolds to a larger Windows (or Android)-based device that can leverage the exact same applications and data, but with subtle UI enhancements optimized for each environment.

«

Well sure, but that’s been the promise of web apps for absolutely years, and they’re never as good as the native UI, because the native UI is tuned to the device and its OS. It’s not a single, consistent target platform. That’s always the hope, and that hope is always dashed.
link to this extract


If you invented the headphone jack in 2019, you’d be a billionaire • NY Mag

»

Rumors are now surfacing that the Samsung Galaxy S10 will be the last phone it puts out to have a 3.5-mm. headphone jack. It already pulled out the headphone jack on its Galaxy A8S. Samsung had been the lone holdout among major manufacturers when it comes to the 3.5-mm. headphone jack — when it debuted the Note 8 a year ago, the announcement that the device would retain a 3.5-mm. headphone jack got the most raucous applause out of any feature announced onstage. But it appears those days will soon draw to a close.

So here’s some free advice to any upstart smartphone manufacturer planning to roll out a phone in 2019: keep the headphone jack, and just pretend you invented it. Call it the something like the PureSound Port.

Have a video with a schlumpy dude in ill-fitting clothes trying to get his wireless headphones to pair, holding up traffic on the sidewalk. (Casting agents: I am available!). Pan slightly over to someone who looks like a Cooper Union grad clicking their artfully retro headphones intothe PureSound Port, and walking blissfully down the street, listening to their music. “No more charging, no more pairing, no lost signals. Just PureSound.”

«

Looks like I’ll have to write a “Benjamin Button goes from” for “wireless headphones to a wired port”, doesn’t it. (It’s a genre.)
link to this extract


Dell to return to the stock market five years after buyout • Bloomberg

Nico Grant:

»

Dell Technologies Inc. won a shareholder vote to return to public markets, putting founder Michael Dell on the winning side of a transformative transaction that polarized investors for the second time in five years.

The world’s largest private technology company on Tuesday secured more than 61% of tracking stock DVMT’s unaffiliated shareholders. Of those who cast a ballot, 89% voted in favor. DVMT acts as a proxy for Dell’s stake in software maker VMware Inc. Round Rock, Texas-based Dell will buy out DVMT in a cash and share-swap deal that values DVMT’s market capitalization at $23.9bn. The computer giant said it will list on the New York Stock Exchange as soon as Dec. 28 under the ticker DELL.

After going private in one of the biggest leveraged buyouts ever, Dell will relist as a financially stronger and more diverse leader in computer equipment and software, though more burdened by debt. The move will help simplify a tangled corporate structure that holds together a tech empire ranging from servers to security software and give the company greater flexibility to raise capital, boost its value and pursue stock-based acquisitions.

It will also allow key investor Silver Lake, which helped take Dell private in 2013 in a deal worth about $24bn, to make its stake more liquid.

«

So public markets were bad five years ago but now they’re great? And just as with the buyout, there have had to be sweeteners to get it to happen.

Anyhow, on the plus side, we might get an indication of how the PC business is doing.
link to this extract


Super Micro finds no malicious hardware in motherboards • WSJ

Allison Prang:

»

Super Micro Computer told its customers in a letter Tuesday that a third-party firm didn’t find malicious hardware on its equipment, as the supplier of motherboards continued to dispute a report that its products had been sabotaged.

“After thorough examination and a range of functional tests, the investigations firm found absolutely no evidence of malicious hardware on our motherboards,” said a letter from Super Micro executives, including CEO Charles Liang. The letter was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Super Micro reiterated that neither its customers nor government agencies had ever told the company they had found malicious hardware on its products.

The company’s letter follows a report from Bloomberg News in October that said Super Micro’s motherboards contained a rogue chip not part of the original design. The article said a “supply chain attack” was carried out by Chinese spies.

«

You’re wondering: where’s the Bloomberg report on this? Answer: here. They reported it.
link to this extract


Cryptocurrencies are like lottery tickets that might pay off in future • The Guardian

Kenneth Rogoff (a former chief economist at the IMF):

»

For the moment, the real question is if and when global regulation will stamp out privately constructed systems that are expensive for governments to trace and monitor. Any single large advanced economy foolish enough to try to embrace cryptocurrencies, as Japan did last year, risks becoming a global destination for money-laundering. (Japan’s subsequent moves to distance itself from cryptocurrencies were perhaps one cause of this year’s gyrations.) In the end, advanced economies will surely coordinate on cryptocurrency regulation, as they have on other measures to prevent money laundering and tax evasion.

But that leaves out a lot of disgruntled players. After all, many today – including Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Russia – are labouring under US financial sanctions. Their governments will not necessarily care about global externalities if they encourage cryptocurrencies that might have value as long as they are used somewhere.

So, while we shouldn’t be surprised by this year’s cryptocurrency price bust, the price of these coins is not necessarily zero. Like lottery tickets, there is a high probability that they are worthless. There is also an extremely small outside chance that they will be worth a great deal someday, for reasons that currently are difficult to anticipate.

«

link to this extract


Notice: Google Fusion Tables turndown • Google Support

Where by “turndown” what they mean is “death”:

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Google Fusion Tables and the Fusion Tables API will be turned down December 3, 2019. Embedded Fusion Tables visualizations — maps, charts, tables and cards — will also stop working that day. Maps using the Fusion Tables Layer in the Maps JavaScript API v3.37 will start to see errors in August 2019.

Fusion Tables was launched almost nine years ago as a research project in Google Labs, later evolving into an experimental product. For a long time, it was one of the few free tools for easily visualizing large datasets, especially on a map.

Since then, several Google alternatives have been developed, providing deeper experiences in more specialized domains.

Google BigQuery – Fast, highly scalable, cost-effective, and fully managed cloud data warehouse for analytics, with built-in machine learning…

Google Cloud SQL (…Fully-managed database service)

Google Sheets (…Fusion Tables can be imported into Google Sheets.)

Google Data Studio (…Data Studio is Google’s free-to-use business intelligence tool.)

Coming soon – Teams at Google have developed internal tools that can create powerful map visualizations. We are working to make some of these tools publicly available and will have more to share in the coming months—sign up to stay in touch.

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OK, so there are paths forward; but this will break a lot of embedded older content. There’s always a hidden price in “free”; the difficulty is always figuring out where it is before you commit yourself beyond the point where it costs more than paying.
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