Start Up: Hunt blasts social media companies, EventBrite muscles in, Google gets Chat-ty, climate’s hockey stick 20 years on, and more


The e-SIM would do away with physical ones – but US carriers want to lock it just like physical ones. Photo by tua ulamac on Flickr.

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

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

Safeguards for social media ‘inadequate’, says Jeremy Hunt • The Guardian

Toby Helm:

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In an angrily worded letter sent to executives at Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Google, [UK secretary of state for health] Hunt says their failure to come forward with safeguards to control access is both “morally wrong” and “unfair on parents”.

Hunt says their inadequate responses have left him with no option but to consider legislation on internet safety. He has also asked the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to report on the impact of technology on young people’s mental health, and to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

In the letter, Hunt tells the companies that their work on devising ways to verify the age of children accessing social media platforms, on screen-time limits, and on measures to end cyberbullying has fallen short.

“In particular, progress on age verification is not good enough … I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age.

“I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side-effects of social media prematurely; this is both morally wrong and deeply unfair on parents, who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in. It is unacceptable and irresponsible for you to put parents in this position.”

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Age verification is, as Hunt points out, appallingly badly carried out. YouTube’s failure to even try to distinguish between what’s appropriate for a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old has irked me for years. There is a feeling that some sort of reckoning is coming around.
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Chat: Google’s big shot at killing Apple’s iMessage • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:

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Google has unveiled a new messaging system, Chat, an attempt to replace SMS, unify Android’s various messaging services and beat Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp with the help of mobile phone operators.

Unlike traditional texting, or SMS, most modern messaging services – such as Signal, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Apple’s iMessage – are so-called over-the-top (OTT) services, which circumvent the mobile phone operator by sending messages over the internet.

Google’s Chat is different. Users will not need to download another chat app or set up a new account. Instead of using OTT, it is based on rich communication services (RCS), a successor to SMS (short message standard), which has been used by people all over the world since 1992 and is still the fallback for most.

RCS has been in the works since 2007, steered by the GSMA mobile operator trade body. Various mobile phone operators have offered their own versions, typically called “advanced messaging” or similar, but they haven’t usually worked with the outside world.

With Chat, Google is unifying all the disparate versions of RCS under one interoperable standard that will work across networks, smartphones and operating systems. In doing so it hopes to take the surefire nature of SMS – anyone can send anyone else with a phone a message without them requiring a specific account or app – and bring it up-to-date with all the features modern chat demands.

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An obvious thought: if Google even looks as though it is positioning this as a way to “kill iMessage”, Apple will never support it, and if Apple doesn’t support it then operators are going to wonder why they’re letting Google screw up their golden goose, and they won’t support it after all. Google can preload it on Android phones, but that’s not “killing iMessage”; it’s “providing an alternative to iMessage”, which WhatsApp and latterly Facebook Messenger have done for years without “killing” iMessage.

Google, seems to be rewriting the Star Trek episode of The Trouble With Tribbles, but with chat apps taking the part of the tribbles.
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U.S. investigating AT&T and Verizon over wireless collusion claim • The New York Times

Ceclia Kang:

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The Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into potential coordination by AT&T, Verizon and a telecommunications standards organization to hinder consumers from easily switching wireless carriers, according to six people with knowledge of the inquiry.

In February, the Justice Department issued demands to AT&T, Verizon and the G.S.M.A., a mobile industry standards-setting group, for information on potential collusion to thwart a technology known as eSIM, said two of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are confidential.

The technology lets people remotely switch wireless providers without having to insert a new SIM card into a device. AT&T and Verizon face accusations that they colluded with the G.S.M.A. to try to establish standards that would allow them to lock a device to their network even if it had eSIM technology.

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US carriers hate the idea of people having the ability to choose between them and introduce competition into the whole thing. It might bring down prices or let people choose based on quality, and then where would you be in the land of free enterprise and capitalism?

Meanwhile the GSMA has suspended work on eSIMs.
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Eventbrite Merchant Agreement • Eventbrite Help Center

This has blown up over the weekend on Twitter:

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7. Permissions You Grant us to Film and Record Your Events.
You grant permission to Eventbrite and its agents to enter onto and remain on the premises (including real property, fixtures, equipment, or other personal property) where your event is hosted (and any other premises you and Eventbrite mutually approve) (collectively, the “Premises”) with personnel and equipment for the purpose of photographing and recording the Premises, both internally and externally in connection with the production of digital content on the date of your event(s) and any other dates reasonably requested by Eventbrite (for example, during setup and breakdown for the event) (the “Shoot”). You, on behalf of yourself, your employees, independent contractors, invitees, licensees, performers, exhibitors, attendees, and all other individuals present at the Shoot (collectively, the “Subjects”), grant permission to Eventbrite and its agents, successors and assigns to record and use the image, likeness, appearance, movements, performances, and statements of the Subjects in any live or recorded audio, video, or photographic display or other transmission, exhibition, publication or reproduction made of, or at, the event (regardless of whether before, during or after the event) for any purpose (including, without limitation, the advertising, promotion and other exploitation of Eventbrite’s brand, Trademarks, Services, or events hosted on the Sites), in any manner, in any medium or context now known or hereafter developed, without further authorization from, or compensation to, the Subjects or anyone acting on a Subject’s behalf.

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Gotta love legal jargon. But what is Eventbrite up to with this?
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ICO fines Kensington & Chelsea £120,000 • UK Authority

Mark Say:

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At the end of June the council received three requests for statistical information used in a report in 2015; specifically the addresses of empty properties in the borough.

As the council no longer held the information, different sources were combined to produce an Excel spreadsheet that included named owners against the addresses of empty properties. This was not originally intended to be disclosed, but an oversight led to it being included as hidden data on the spreadsheet made available to the FoI applicants: it could be revealed with a double click.

This led to the publication on newspaper websites of the number of empty properties with details of three high profile owners. In addition, the spreadsheet was published on one journalist’s online blog for an hour.

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Excel considered harmful.
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Rising sea levels reshape Miami’s housing market • WSJ

Laura Kusisto and Arian Campo-Flores:

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Jesse Keenan, a real-estate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and author of the paper, said he was initially surprised to see ordinary homeowners already seeming to factor future sea-level rise into their calculations.

Low-elevation properties are becoming Miami’s laggards, he said. “To see them really separate is pretty shocking, because you can infer that this is a pricing signal from climate change.”

Miami is a testing ground for the vulnerability of housing markets in other coastal cities, such as New York and Boston, because its elevation is as little as one foot above sea level and its porous limestone makes it especially vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Another new paper, from researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Pennsylvania State University, shows that the trend in Miami is playing out across the country, with homes that are vulnerable to rising sea levels now selling at a 7% discount compared with similar but less-exposed properties. The paper, which is under peer review, shows that the size of the coastal discount has grown over time.

Ryan Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, said he and his co-authors noticed the strongest discounting among investors and second-home owners, who have the most choices about where to buy. Increasingly, he said, ordinary home buyers in places such as Miami, where there is strong awareness of the risks, also are starting to discount.

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Earth Day and the Hockey Stick: a singular message • Scientific American Blog Network

Michael Mann published the original “hockey stick” graph with a pair of colleagues in Nature in 1998:

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Nothing in my training as a scientist could have prepared me for the very public battles I would soon face. The hockey stick told a simple story: There is something unprecedented about the warming we are experiencing today and, by implication, it has something to do with us and our profligate burning of fossil fuels. The story was a threat to companies that profited from fossil fuels, and government officials doing their bidding, all of whom opposed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the vulnerable junior first author of the article (I was a postdoctoral researcher), I found myself in the crosshairs of industry-funded attack dogs looking to discredit the iconic symbol of the human impact on our climate…by discrediting me personally.


The hockey stick temperature reconstruction from 1999 (blue) along with the data record (red) and the 2013 “PAGES2k” temperature reconstruction (green). ​ ​​Credit: Klaus Bittermann via Wikimedia Commons ​(CC BY-SA 4.0)
 
In my 2013 book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, I gave a name to this modus operandi of science critics: the Serengeti strategy. The term describes how industry special interests and their facilitators single out individual researchers to attack, in much the same way lions of the Serengeti single out an individual zebra from the herd. In numbers there is strength; individuals are far more vulnerable.

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The “Serengeti strategy” is pretty widely used for all sorts of topics.
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SmugMug snaps up Flickr photo service from Verizon’s Oath • USA Today

Jessica Guynn:

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Flickr has been snapped up by Silicon Valley photo-sharing and storage company SmugMug, USA TODAY has learned.

SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill told USA TODAY he’s committed to breathing new life into the faded social networking pioneer, which hosted photos and lively interactions long before it became trendy. 

SmugMug, an independent, family-run company, will maintain Flickr as a standalone community of amateur and professional photographers and give the long neglected service the focus and resources it deserves, MacAskill said in an exclusive interview. 

He declined to disclose the terms of the deal, which closed this week.

“Flickr is an amazing community, full of some of the world’s most passionate photographers. It’s a fantastic product and a beloved brand, supplying tens of billions of photos to hundreds of millions of people around the world,” MacAskill said. “Flickr has survived through thick-and-thin and is core to the entire fabric of the Internet.”

The surprise deal ends months of uncertainty for Flickr, whose fate had been up in the air since last year when Yahoo was bought by Verizon for $4.5 billion and joined with AOL in Verizon’s Oath subsidiary.

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The FAQ over at SmugMug includes this gem:

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What will happen to my Flickr account? What will happen to my Smugmug account?

Absolutely nothing. Flickr and SmugMug will continue to operate separately, just as both have been. Your SmugMug and Flickr accounts will remain separate and independent for the foreseeable future.

Both Flickr and SmugMug users will continue to log in with their current credentials and you will have the same experience you are used to. If things do change in the future for Flickr, we’ll be as transparent as possible about the process and give you as much notice as we can about the issues that will matter to you.

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Keep a watch on this one. I use Flickr Creative Commons licence photos on these posts; it would be a tragedy (for me, but more for creators) if SmugMug decides that Flickr just isn’t washing its face sufficiently.
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This awesome illusion turns squares into circles in the mirror • Science Alert

Hi there, welcome to another dimension, where up is down, right is wrong, and squares are circles. Seriously, bring us all your squares and we’ll turn them into circles for you. Just place them in front of this mirror interdimensional portal here, and voilà! You’re welcome.

Meet one of the finalists of the aptly named Best Illusion of the Year Contest 2016 – the ‘ambiguous cylinder illusion’, performed by engineer Kokichi Sugihara from Meiji University in Japan. 

So what’s actually going on here? Like any good optical illusion, it’s a play on perspective – our eyes see something that our brains have a difficult time interpreting and correcting.

Watch it on YouTube, or in the embed below. Guarantee you won’t be able to work out how it works. (It’s a real, single, solid object – no sleight of hand involved.)

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/oWfFco7K9v8?rel=0

(“Privacy-enhanced” mode turned on for the embed.)
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iPhony (August 2002) • Daring Fireball

John Gruber, wayyyyy back in August 2002:

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John Markoff’s New York Times article speculating about a vaporware Apple-branded mobile “iPhone” is getting a lot of traction. Go ahead and read it, but remember that it’s all bullshit speculation at this point.

Other than Jobs himself, who confirms nothing about an Apple iPhone, Mr. Markoff’s only sources are “industry analysts”. Industry analysts know nothing about Apple, and given their record in the tech industry in the last few years, it’s a wonder anyone quotes them at all. Even the Daring Fireball could have offered better insight than these bozos…

…The article seems to insinuate that Apple could make Sherlock run on a cell phone; that’s impossible, unless the cell phone were actually running Mac OS X, which definitely is impossible. If Apple were to create an iPhone, and said iPhone were to have a search application called Sherlock, said Sherlock would by definition need to be completely rewritten.

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This popped into my feed some time last week; the perspective is fascinating. The NYT article suggest that Apple would try to add phone capabilities to a computer – which is sort of how it worked out, but this was all before Apple had even begun working on a phone. At this point it was considering a tablet, because at a dinner with Jobs, a boastful Microsoftie (not, I think, Gates) had made so much of what the new Windows tablets could do that Jobs went back to the office and determined to crush it.

Then in 2005 the tablet was put off in favour of the phone.
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Someone’s building a Twitter bot army in Thailand • Khao Sod

Todd Ruiz on the creation of 40,000 peculiar Twitter accounts:

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Where it gets weird is that all are new accounts with no followers and, in almost all cases, no tweets. Yet each follows a few dozen accounts representing a who’s who list of online influencers including journalists, media companies, scholars and celebs. Some user names are written in Thai script, but all of those have machine-generated strings such as @hjZuotIwLtiSojc and @hIrQMl1B71tIYKF as account names…

…Thai internet transparency activist Arthit Suriyawongkul said that if the bots are specifically targeting media and influential figures, it could be something to watch out for. Because they haven’t done anything yet, he said it’s difficult to predict their intended purpose.

“Because they still haven’t shown activity, it’s not easy to tell what they’re up to,” he said. “I can’t think of any current (political) context in Thailand right now that might be fueling these bots.”

He believes that, when it comes to state surveillance, there are easier methods available. Also, bots are “generally harmless” if they remain inactive and unfollowed.

Pichaya said people should be wary of another possible function: recording online activity.

“If we post something and delete it later, we may think it is gone, but these bots will collect it. It’s not really deleted,” he said. “If you comment on something offensively, and let’s say it could be relevant to a libel case, that might cause you problems, because it will be kept.”

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(Thanks JC for the link.)
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National Enquirer parent, staunch Trump backer, faces mounting debt, shrinking sales • WSJ

Lukas Alpert:

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The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., has said the tabloid’s plentiful and positive coverage of President Donald Trump has been good for business.

If so, it hasn’t been enough to boost the company’s overall performance.

Nonpublic AMI financial reports reviewed by The Wall Street Journal reveal a company with ballooning debt, falling revenue and shrinking newsstand sales at its print magazines, including the flagship Enquirer as well as OK! and Star.

Revenue for the fiscal year that ended in March 2017 was $203.8m, down 9% from the prior year and 29% from 2014, when the company completed a substantial restructuring. Its outstanding debt load stood at $920m at the end of December. Acquisitions of Us Weekly and Men’s Journal in 2017 helped increase revenue in the first three quarters of fiscal 2018 to $195.5m, from $154m in the year-earlier period, but they also added more than $100m in debt.

Aggressive cost-cutting has kept AMI hovering around profitability on an operating basis, but the company has routinely booked quarterly and annual losses in the tens of millions of dollars due to amortization costs related to its debt, the financial reports show.

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This graphic shows the average sold per week by the National Enquirer when it has/had Trump/Clinton on the cover. (There’s more detail, including specific covers – “Hillary’s Hitman Tells All!” is the highest peak, and “Hillary Gains 103 Lbs!” the second biggest-selling anti-Clinton cover. The biggest-selling Trump cover (over on the left) is “The Donald Trump Nobody Knows!”

But.. $920m of debt. That’s quite some gearing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the ICO scam that wasn’t, millennial streamers, machine learning and chaos, Intel shutters smart glasses, and more


Mycelia: they could make an impressive leather replacement for vegans. Photo by Amadej Trnkoczy on Flickr.

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

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

Millennial streamers and music on smart speakers • Global Web Index

Olivia Valentine:

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Millennials are the most passionate generation when it comes to music streaming, with 68% engaging. But just as the music-streaming business is experiencing continued user growth, the interest in smart voice-controlled devices (e.g. Amazon Echo, Google Home) is trending quickly upwards, too, pointing at a potential to shake up the music streaming landscape. 

Two-thirds of Millennial Music Streamers say they currently use or are planning to purchase one of these smart devices, putting this group 9 percentage points ahead of the Millennial average for this figure across the globe.

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So quite a lot of room for Apple to expand into, if it gets it right. This is in the early stages.

(The definition of “music streamer” is someone who says they stream music daily.)
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Palantir knows everything about you • Bloomberg Businessweek

Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman, and Jordan Robertson offer a huge rundown on Peter Thiel’s data-gathering company, which does work mostly for law enforcement and finance (it seems); this little example from Los Angeles where the LAPD is using its “Gotham” system points to the problems:

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In 2016, [22-year-old Manuel] Rios was sitting in a parked car with an Eastside 18 [gang] friend when a police car pulled up. His buddy ran, pursued by the cops, but Rios stayed put. “Why should I run? I’m not a gang member,” he says over steak and eggs at the IHOP near his home. The police returned and handcuffed him. One of them took his picture with a cellphone. “Welcome to the gang database!” the officer said.

Since then he’s been stopped more than a dozen times, he says, and told that if he doesn’t like it he should move. He has nowhere to go. His girlfriend just had a baby girl, and he wants to be around for them. “They say you’re in the system, you can’t lie to us,” he says. “I tell them, ‘How can I be in the hood if I haven’t got jumped in? Can’t you guys tell people who bang and who don’t?’ They go by their facts, not the real facts.”

The police, on autopilot with Palantir, are driving Rios toward his gang friends, not away from them, worries Mariella Saba, a neighbor and community organizer who helped him get off meth. When whole communities like East L.A. are algorithmically scraped for pre-crime suspects, data is destiny, says Saba. “These are systemic processes. When people are constantly harassed in a gang context, it pushes them to join. They internalize being told they’re bad.”

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You don’t finish this thinking that Palantir are on the up and up.
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Machine learning’s ‘amazing’ ability to predict chaos • Quanta Magazine

Natalie Wolchover:

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Half a century ago, the pioneers of chaos theory discovered that the “butterfly effect” makes long-term prediction impossible. Even the smallest perturbation to a complex system (like the weather, the economy or just about anything else) can touch off a concatenation of events that leads to a dramatically divergent future. Unable to pin down the state of these systems precisely enough to predict how they’ll play out, we live under a veil of uncertainty.

But now the robots are here to help.

In a series of results reported in the journals Physical Review Letters and Chaos, scientists have used machine learning — the same computational technique behind recent successes in artificial intelligence — to predict the future evolution of chaotic systems out to stunningly distant horizons. The approach is being lauded by outside experts as groundbreaking and likely to find wide application.

“I find it really amazing how far into the future they predict” a system’s chaotic evolution, said Herbert Jaeger, a professor of computational science at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

The findings come from veteran chaos theorist Edward Ott and four collaborators at the University of Maryland. They employed a machine-learning algorithm called reservoir computing to “learn” the dynamics of an archetypal chaotic system called the Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equation. The evolving solution to this equation behaves like a flame front, flickering as it advances through a combustible medium.

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What’s the length of the shortest bit sequence that’s never been sent over the internet? • Sean Cassidy

Sean Cassidy:

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A friend of mine posed this brain teaser to me recently: “What’s the length of shortest bit sequence that’s never been sent over the Internet?”

We can never know for sure because we don’t have a comprehensive list of all the data.

But what can we say probabilistically? Restating it like so: “At what value for X is there a 50% chance there’s a sequence of X-bits in length that hasn’t been transmitted yet?”

What does your intuition say? Obviously every 8-bit sequence has been sent, since there’s only 256 values. By downloading this HTML page over TLS you’ve probably used up every 8-bit value. Has every 100 byte message been sent?

This is how my intuition went: it’s probably less than 128 bits because UUIDs are 128 bits, and they’re universally unique. It’s probably greater than 48 bits because of how common collisions are at that end for hashes and CRCs, and the Internet has generated a lot of traffic.

How would we determine the right value?

I decided to model data as each bit sent is like flipping a coin. This isn’t strictly true, of course, but with encryption becoming more prevalent, it’s getting to be close.

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If you’re at all into maths, it’s fun just to pause and try this before you go to his solution.
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The disgraceful dockless drama: what dockless bikes/scooters are exposing • Haveago.city

Have A Go, following cease-and-desist orders sent to three electric scooter companies in San Francisco:

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Dockless bikes and scooters are not actually the problem.

For decades now, cars have gotten the royal treatment. Users were able to pick up their cars and drop them off anywhere in the city. Automobile parking is all around. From street parking, to business parking lots, to single family homes with driveways and garages, to large parking structures. Thus, the user experience for drivers is essentially go anywhere, park anywhere.

It was simply expected that anywhere one goes in a city, one could be guaranteed a free, giant space to park one’s private 4000-pound box, no questions asked.

Sure, in some dense areas, payment is now required. Yet private vehicle parking is essentially considered a right. We know this because when we can’t find parking for more than two minutes, we get upset. 5 minutes? We get very upset.

We also know this because it is quite literally law with parking minimums mandates for homes, businesses, and just about every building that is built or remodeled. We’ve mandated that the space that could otherwise be utilized for affordable housing, parks, cafes, or other human uses is legally required to serve as public storage for urban tanks and a free subsidy to oil and car companies.

If a city all of a sudden woke up to find the same amount of parking for cars as there is now for bikes/scooters, there wouldn’t be a few angry tweets (as there is now for new dockless bikes/scooters), but riots in the streets!

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Fair point.
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Mylo, a material that looks like leather, made from plants • Bolt Threads

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How do you make Mylo™?

We use corn stalks and supplemental nutrients to feed and grow our mycelium. We precisely control growth conditions like temperature and humidity to encourage the mycelium to grow upward and self-assemble into an organized mat of interconnected cells. Their connections give the material strength. We then use a natural tanning process and compress the mat to be as thin or thick as we’d like the final material to be. At this point the mycelium is no longer growing. The final step is to imprint any desired pattern, which gives us the final material.

Is this the same technology you use to make Microsilk™?

No, our Microsilk™ technology involves engineering yeast to produce protein materials. With Mylo™, we grow mycelium, which we process into the final Mylo™ material.

Our friends at Ecovative pioneered this mycelium fabrication technology, which literally grew out of the great work they’ve been doing in creating soft flexible foams. We were blown away, and thrilled when they agreed to allow us to help develop it into a commercially viable new material. We’ve established a long-term partnership with Ecovative to optimize this technology and put processes in place to produce commercial-ready Mylo™ material and bring products to market that consumers will love.

Are these mycelium genetically engineered?

No, instead we carefully control the wild spores’ growth conditions like temperature and humidity to engineer the final material’s properties.

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Like to know the tensile strength compared to leather, and how it copes with rain and wear.
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Facebook moves 1.5bn users out of reach of new European privacy law • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Facebook has moved more than 1.5 billion users out of reach of European privacy law, despite a promise from Mark Zuckerberg to apply the “spirit” of the legislation globally.

In a tweak to its terms and conditions, Facebook is shifting the responsibility for all users outside the US, Canada and the EU from its international HQ in Ireland to its main offices in California. It means that those users will now be on a site governed by US law rather than Irish law.

The move is due to come into effect shortly before General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in Europe on 25 May. Facebook is liable under GDPR for fines of up to 4% of its global turnover – around $1.6bn – if it breaks the new data protection rules.

The shift highlights the cautious phrasing Facebook has applied to its promises around GDPR. Earlier this month, when asked whether his company would promise GDPR protections to its users worldwide, Zuckerberg demurred. “We’re still nailing down details on this, but it should directionally be, in spirit, the whole thing,” he said.

A week later, during his hearings in front of the US Congress, Zuckerberg was again asked if he would promise that GDPR’s protections would apply to all Facebook users. His answer was affirmative – but only referred to GDPR “controls”, rather than “protections”. Worldwide, Facebook has rolled out a suite of tools to let users exercise their rights under GDPR, such as downloading and deleting data, and the company’s new consent-gathering controls are similarly universal.

Facebook told Reuters “we apply the same privacy protections everywhere, regardless of whether your agreement is with Facebook Inc or Facebook Ireland”. It said the change was only carried out “because EU law requires specific language” in mandated privacy notices, which US law does not.

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In other news, leopards’ spots remain unchanged.
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Intel plans to shut down smart glasses group • The Information

Aaron Tilley:

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The division, formed in 2013, made fitness trackers and smart glasses. Despite an investment of several hundred million dollars by Intel, including through acquisitions of other companies, the group never made much of an impact in the wearables market.

The closure is likely to lead to some layoffs. The department reportedly had 200 people earlier this year, down from as many as 800 in 2016, although the current size isn’t known. Employees who can’t find a position in other divisions of Intel will be laid off, the people said.

In February, Bloomberg reported that Intel was looking for outside investment for the smart glasses project. Intel valued the smart glasses division at $350m with around 200 employees, according to Bloomberg. The closure suggests Intel wasn’t able to raise any fresh investment. That same month, The Verge reported on the smart glass project, known internally as Vaunt.

In a statement, Intel said it is “continuously working on new technologies and experiences. Not all of these develop into a product we choose to take to market.” It added that Intel will continue to take a “disciplined approach as we keep inventing and exploring new technologies, which will sometimes require tough choices when market dynamics don’t support further investment.”

The unit’s closure is the latest sign of how Intel has failed to diversify beyond its core chip business. Intel has tried various other steps, including buying security firm McAfee and internet of services business Wind River, without success. Last year it sold a majority stake in McAfee and recently sold Wind River.

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Wearables are tricky – look at Nokia giving up on Withings – but it’s hard not to feel that Intel is getting out of this at the wrong time. Unless it has discovered things about AR and similar which tell it that this is an utter dead end.
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Amazon recruits Best Buy to sell Fire TV edition smart TVs • Engadget

Steve Dent:

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Best Buy has partnered with Amazon to sell voice-controlled Fire TV Edition branded TVs in its stores and on its website, the companies announced. CEOs Jeff Bezos from Amazon and Best Buy’s Hubert Joly said the retailer will sell 11 Amazon-powered TVs, including 4K and HD models, starting this summer with Toshiba models. At the same time, Best Buy will become a merchant on Amazon’s website and get exclusive rights to sell Amazon Fire TVs.

“Amazon and Best Buy have a long history of working together,” said Bezos, referring to Best Buy sales of Kindle readers. “Today we take our partnership to a new level.”

Amazon unveiled its first Fire TV Edition sets last year with TV maker Element, starting at $449 for a 43-inch model. The TVs expand on what you can do with a Fire TV stick, letting you see live TV alongside streaming options, detect devices connected to your TV, and consult a channel guide, to name a few features.

At the same time, you can use Alexa to control not just your TV, but also Hue lights and other smart home devices. Unlike with an Echo device, you have to hit a button to reach Alexa, as it’s not listening for a wake word.

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Two things: first, this is bad news for Roku, which Best Buy used to sell with TVs; second, it increases the pressure on Apple to integrate the Apple TV into a TV set and just sell the all-in-one. Well, it worked for the iMac, right?
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The marriage-saving robot that can assemble Ikea furniture… sort of • New Yorker

Ronan Farrow:

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The researchers bought a basic chair from Ikea—the stefan model, made of lacquered pine—and, to simulate the human experience, took the pieces out of the box and put them “randomly within the environment.” First, the robot assessed where everything was; that took three seconds. Then it used an algorithm to plan out what to move where, and how; that took eleven minutes and twenty-one seconds. Actually building the chair took just under nine minutes. The sequence of steps was hard-coded in advance—the robot essentially followed the manual—but everything else was done on the fly. “The challenge is to quickly and consistently find fast, collision-free motions in a highly cluttered environment,” the researchers note, which pretty well describes every Ikea-furniture-building undertaking ever.

The Ikea bot’s arms move in extreme slow motion; it’s like watching two people try to put a chair together while stoned. (My point of reference here is Hikea Productions, a seemingly defunct YouTube channel featuring videos of humans assembling micke desks and nordli dressers while tripping on psychedelics.)

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The robots though are kinda.. big? There’s a video. You wouldn’t want them in the living room. But I like the idea of Hikea productions. (Style note: the New Yorker calls it “ikea” but even the store calls itself Ikea, surely, so I’ve changed it. What I also don’t understand is the NYer’s spelling out of numbers like “twenty-one”, which are faster to read as “21”.)
link to this extract


We tracked down the SaveDroid motherfscker and need your help • Crypto Briefing

Adam Selene on the followup to that “cryptocurrency exit scam” which featured yesterday:

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Crypto Briefing tracked Yassin Hankir’s location to an Egyptian resort town.

UPDATE: By now, many of you will know that Savedroid perpetrated what they consider to be a giant prank designed to illustrate that exit scams are a part of the crypto market.

Here’s the deal.

When you take $50m in funds that are raised by investors who believe in your project, you don’t then pretend to disappear with that money.

What happens if you do? People start looking for you.

Yassin Hassir may consider himself a genius for drawing the eyes of millions to his stunt. But to his investors, he caused them anxiety, pain, and distress.

RULE ONE – NEVER, EVER, EVER TREAT YOUR INVESTORS WITH A LACK OF RESPECT.

Hassir broke that rule. And while there are those who will criticize Crypto Briefing for trying to help those investors track down their money, and the man who claimed to have stolen it, we are proud of our response.

We took the trouble to search for hours online to match a photo to a location in Egypt. We called the police in Frankfurt. We did what we could to be part of the REAL community – the kind of people you’d want on your side if this had been the real thing.

As to the prank itself? Not so clever. Not so funny. And having dragged his company’s name through the mud, not so good for Hassir’s investors.

We will not be removing the original article, printed below, because we are – as we say – proud to be acting in the best interests of our community.

«

Hassir posted a photo of a beach and an Egyptian beer online; the community pored over photos of beaches in Egypt, and tracked him down to his hotel. He says it’s a PR stunt. The equivalent of running with scissors while lighting matches in a firework factory.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: another scam ICO?, Amazon’s 100m Primes, Facebook gets chippy, PornHub deepfakes, and more


The US Army has figured out how to do facial recognition in the dark. Photo by gabriella travaline on Flickr.

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

Another scam ICO? Savedroid founder exits with $50m to chill on a beach • Cryptovest

Hunain Naseer:

»

In what is either a joke in very bad taste or another ICO exit scam, the founder of Savedroid ICO Tweeted ‘Over and out’, with a picture of himself at the airport and then chilling on a beach.

It is believed that the ICO raised around 40 million Euros, or $50 million USD via the token sale, claiming that they will build a smart, A.I managed application which would automatically invest user funds into profitable ICO portfolios. There were also claims of a cryptocurrency credit card, but it seems all that is gone now, with the official site displaying a Southpark meme.

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Even if this isn’t a scam – just a joke – why would anyone put any money into these ridiculous things? Why why why.
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Amazon annual shareholder letter • SEC

Jeff BEzos:

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Prime – 13 years post-launch, we have exceeded 100 million paid Prime members globally. In 2017 Amazon shipped more than five billion items with Prime worldwide, and more new members joined Prime than in any previous year – both worldwide and in the U.S. Members in the U.S. now receive unlimited free two-day shipping on over 100 million different items. We expanded Prime to Mexico, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and introduced Business Prime Shipping in the U.S. and Germany. We keep making Prime shipping faster as well, with Prime Free Same-Day and Prime Free One-Day delivery now in more than 8,000 cities and towns. Prime Now is available in more than 50 cities worldwide across nine countries. Prime Day 2017 was our biggest global shopping event ever (until surpassed by Cyber Monday), with more new Prime members joining Prime than any other day in our history.

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Bezos’s decision to release this now, in this way, is fascinating. Estimates suggest that 70-80m of those Prime accounts are in the US; and that the “exceeding 100m” serves many more than that number of people, because of the number of families using the accounts. (I’ll testify to that in my house.) Also helps people to start figuring out the size of Amazon Video and Amazon Music.
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Facebook is forming a team to design its own chips • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman, Ian King and Sarah Frier:

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Facebook is building a team to design its own semiconductors, adding to a trend among technology companies to supply themselves and lower their dependence on chipmakers such as Intel and Qualcomm, according to job listings and people familiar with the matter.

The social media company is seeking to hire a manager to build an “end-to-end SoC/ASIC, firmware and driver development organization,” according to a job listing on its corporate website, indicating the effort is still in its early stages.

The Menlo Park, California-based company would join other technology giants tackling the massive effort to develop chips. In 2010, Apple started shipping its own chips and now uses them across many of its major product lines. Alphabet’s Google has developed its own artificial intelligence chip as well.

Facebook could use such chips to power hardware devices, artificial intelligence software and servers in its data centers. Next month, the company will launch the Oculus Go, a $200 standalone virtual-reality headset that runs on a Qualcomm processor. Facebook is also working on a slew of smart speakers. Future generations of those devices could be improved by custom chipsets. By using its own processors, the company would have finer control over product development and would be able to better tune its software and hardware together.

Facebook declined to comment on the job postings.

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Most likely it’s trying to save power in its data centres by going for ARM designs. I’m a tiny bit wary of this story, for no better reason than that it has three authors. In my experience that means different people chucking in different pieces; it’s not the same as a single person tracking down an interesting lead. And it can also mean misinterpretation.

link to this extract


An elaborate test cheating scheme in Asia involved hidden phones and flesh-coloured earpieces • Gizmodo UK

Melanie Ehrenkranz:

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A tutor and several accomplices were recently caught running a complex exam cheating operation in Singapore that one prosecutor called “highly sophisticated.” Unfortunately for them, it apparently wasn’t sophisticated enough to avoid getting busted.

According to prosecutors, 32-year-old Tan Jia Yan ran the operation, which involved surreptitious FaceTime calls, hidden Bluetooth devices, and flesh-coloured earpieces. During the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) exams, students wore Bluetooth devices connected to mobile phones hidden in their clothes as well as flesh-colored earpieces, Channel News Asia reports. Tan reportedly sat in on the exams, using clear tape to stick an iPhone to her shirt, hiding it with a jacket. Authorities say Tan would then FaceTime the exam questions to her accomplices, who would call the students at the exam centre and relay the answers to their earpieces. The ring is accused of helping at six students, all Chinese nationals, cheat at exams in English, Math, Chemistry, and Physics.

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link to this extract


Mentally ill Chinese man ‘lost’ for a year reunited with family thanks to facial recognition technology • South China Morning Post

Zhuang Pinghui:

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The shabbily dressed man was found in January last year wandering in a tunnel at Chongqing railway station. He appeared confused, and when officials asked him where he lived he simply mumbled “money”, Chongqing Evening News reported… The man was sent to a hospital for treatment and improved, but still could not say where he came from. Staff read out the names of all the counties in neighbouring Sichuan province as he had a thick local accent, but still could not confirm where his family came from.

Officials later contacted a technology company that was piloting a scheme with a local government to use facial recognition technology.

The man’s picture was sent to the firm and after a scan through public records was found to match a 31-year-old from the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan.

The man was later taken to a shelter in the prefecture to meet his brother.

The relative said he was grateful his brother had returned home safely after going missing for more than a year.

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Reading the SCMP on this is fascinating – this is about the only positive story out of China on facial recognition. Others on offer: “Facial recognition tech catches fugitive in huge crowd at Jacky Cheung pop concert in China”; “facial recognition technology used by Shenzhen police to identify jaywalkers”. Try it yourself.
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US Army figures out how to do facial recognition in the dark • Defense One

Patrick Tucker:

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Our brains “see” by extrapolating a picture from a relatively small amount of sensory data, filtered through the eye. The brain uses several times more neuronal mass to construct images from visual data than the eye does collecting the data.

The Army researchers saw a parallel with thermal images. Such images show what parts of the face are hotter and cooler, but generally contain fewer data points than a comparable optical image from a camera, making it hard to pick out distinct features. So they set up a convolutional neural network, or CNN, a deep-learning method that uses specific nodes similar to the brain’s, and set it to infer faces from limited data.

The method that the researchers use breaks a thermal picture of a face into specific regions and then compares them to an optical image of the same face. The network estimates where key features are in the thermal image in relation to the conventional image. The network’s final product is something like a police sketch — not a perfect match, but with enough overlap in key points to make a high-certainty match.

In a paper published by the IEEE Winter Conference on Applications of Computer Vision, the researchers write, “We were able to produce highly discriminative representations. Despite the fact that the synthesized imagery does not produce a photo-realistic texture, the verification performance achieved was better than both baseline and recent approaches when matching the synthesized faces with visible face.”

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link to this extract


PornHub banned “deep fake” celebrity sex videos, but the site is still full of them • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel:

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Last February, PornHub announced that it no longer tolerate machine learning-powered Deepfakes videos on its platform. The site said the videos — which feature realistic celebrity faces swapped onto the bodies of adult actors — were a form of non-consensual content and would be purged from the site, which averages over 100 billion video views a year. But despite the initial pledge, celebrity deepfake porn videos continue to thrive on PornHub.

While banned material frequently slips through the cracks on large sites that allow users to upload content, the deepfake violations on PornHub are especially flagrant. More than 70 deepfake videos were easily searchable from the site’s homepage using the search term “deepfake.” Nearly all the videos — which included graphic and fake depictions of celebrities like Katy Perry, Scarlett Johansson, Daisy Ridley, and Jennifer Lawrence — had the word “deepfake” prominently mentioned in the title of the video and many of the names of the videos’ uploaders contained the word “deepfake.” Similarly, a serach for “fake deep” returned over 30 of the non-consensual celebrity videos.

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Videos, and adverts. Pornhub has either decided the money’s too good, or it’s much harder to search for “deep fake” than it thought. Hmm.
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Google responds to troubling report of apps tracking kids • Tom’s Guide

Henry Casey:

»

Shockingly, a total of 57% of the apps studied appeared to be in potential violation of COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 1998 law that looks to safeguard the privacy of users under the age of 13.

A Google spokesperson provided the following response to Tom’s Guide: “We’re taking the researchers’ report very seriously and looking into their findings. Protecting kids and families is a top priority, and our Designed for Families program requires developers to abide by specific requirements above and beyond our standard Google Play policies. If we determine that an app violates our policies, we will take action. We always appreciate the research community’s work to help make the Android ecosystem safer.”

Part of the potential violations at hand include the nugget that 92% of the 1,280 apps that plug into Facebook’s API may be using it for activities prohibited by COPPA.

Further, 19% of children’s apps collect some kind of identifier “or other personally identifiable information” using software development kits (SDKs) whose terms of service say these programs shouldn’t be used in children’s apps.

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And now follow on to the next…
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No boundaries for Facebook data: third-party trackers abuse Facebook Login • Freedom To Tinker

»

Facebook Login and other social login systems simplify the account creation process for users by decreasing the number of passwords to remember. But social login brings risks: Cambridge Analytica was found misusing user data collected by a Facebook quiz app which used the Login with Facebook feature. We’ve uncovered an additional risk: when a user grants a website access to their social media profile, they are not only trusting that website, but also third parties embedded on that site.

We found seven scripts collecting Facebook user data using the first party’s Facebook access. These scripts are embedded on a total of 434 of the top 1 million sites, including fiverr.com, bhphotovideo.com, and mongodb.com. We detail how we discovered these scripts in Appendix 1 below. Most of them grab the user ID, and two grab additional profile information such as email and username. We believe the websites embedding these scripts are likely unaware of this particular data access.

The user ID collected through the Facebook API is specific to the website (or the “application” in Facebook’s terminology), which would limit the potential for cross-site tracking. But these app-scoped user IDs can be used to retrieve the global Facebook ID, user’s profile photo, and other public profile information, which can be used to identify and track users across websites and devices.

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link to this extract


We can stop hacking and trolls, but it would ruin the internet • New Scientist

Sally Adee and Carl Miller, writing in August 2017:

»

The existing internet was never meant to cope with billions of users and abusers – though its underlying technology, known as TCP/IP, was designed to survive cold war nuclear annihilation.

Rather than sending data across static network paths, which could be destroyed, TCP/IP will do everything it can to get packets of information from point A to point B via any viable route. It doesn’t care who you are, what you’re sending or who you’re sending it to: all that matters is the internet addresses that need connecting.

This attitude was fine in the 1970s when you could map the entire internet on a single sheet of paper. These days, it is a disaster, making it tough to figure out who people on the internet actually are and stop them doing bad things.

But what if you could assign a unique, permanent and traceable identifier to every phone, laptop, identity or document? Robert Kahn, co-developer of TCP/IP, created just such a system in the early 1990s. As the modern internet struggles, it is starting to get attention.

Rather than dealing with anonymous packets of data, Kahn’s system is based on digital objects – each a specific sequence of bits with its own unique identifier, or handle. This “handle system” is already in limited use on today’s internet. Academic journals use a form of handle called a digital object identifier, aka, DOI, to give research papers a citable and unchanging identity, even if it moves to a new website.

“It’s one identifier for the material that gets you to the material, no matter where it is,” says Kahn. Research papers are just one example. “It can be a movie, a book or chapters of a book,” he says. And using handles to identify parts of a digital object, like a chapter, would provide a massive online security update.

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Still true. Still can’t really do it.
link to this extract


Pioneering fingerprint technique helps South Wales Police secure drugs convictions against 11 people • South Wales Police

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On top of Morris’ links to the cannabis conspiracy, officers were able to prove he was also responsible for supplying huge amounts of ecstasy, a Class A drug, thanks to the innovative work of the JSIU [Join Scientific Support Unit].

Staff from the unit’s specialist imaging team were able to enhance a picture of a hand holding a number of tablets, which was taken from a mobile phone, before fingerprint experts were able to positively identify that the hand was that of Elliott Morris.

In another first for South Wales Police, they were also able to prove that he had almost £20,000 hidden in bitcoin accounts – the majority of which, Elliott admitted, was gained from his illegal drug sales.

In total, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy worth around £36,000 and around £21,000 in cash, was recovered during the investigation.

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link to this extract


Tougher smartphone market in EMEA in 2017 sees emerging markets slow but Apple gains •IDC

»

The EMEA [Europe, Mid-East, Africa] mobile phone market saw smartphone volumes fall for a second year in 2017, while there was a relative boom in shipments of lowly feature phones, a reversal of the previous trend.
Smartphone volumes were down modestly at 361m, against 374m in 2016. Feature phone shipments rose by 8.7% to 206m. Smartphone market value was marginally lower in dollar terms at $109bn, though the drop was more pronounced in euros, at €96bn, against €101bn in 2016.

“Looking at the European market of the European Union, Norway, and Switzerland, consumers are spending more money on phones even as they buy them less frequently. This is true of countries in both Western and Central Europe,” said Simon Baker, program director of mobile phone research in IDC CEMA. In a year when the European economy showed shoots of recovery, and the euro rose against the dollar, the drop underlined the pressures as the smartphone business matures.

Apple managed to stand out in a difficult market, commented Susana Santos, senior research analyst at IDC Western Europe. The premium iPhone X was only launched in November but added some $4.3bn to Apple sales in the European market across the year, over a sixth of the annual Apple total. Sales in the more affluent Western European countries were overall flat, though Germany stood out, but overall in EMEA the shipment value of Apple iPhones rose to 37.5% of total smartphone value, on sales of 57m iPhones across the year, up from 34.2% of the market value and 54.8m iPhones in 2016.

The competition to Samsung from Huawei helped to revitalize the top end of the Android market, and in Europe sales of Android phones above $700 (€619 in 2017) were up by a fifth from 2016. But there was a trend to keep older premium models in production at lower prices to keep volumes buoyant as consumers looked for better value in their phone purchases. Samsung continued to dominate Android sales in EMEA and in 2017 held on to a two-fifth share, while Huawei’s challenge slowed, with the Android share only slightly above that of the previous year at 13.4%.

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Stagnation; and yet within that, Apple increases sales. The same as we’ve seen in the personal computer market.

link to this extract


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

The axes of HomePod evolution: don’t judge what you can’t yet see


The MacBook Air, in an envelope just like it came in. Photo by yasuhisa yanagi on Flickr.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Apple’s HomePod, and the claim from Mark Gurman writing at Bloomberg that it “hasn’t lived up to expectations” in sales terms. Though if you ask analysts in the field, such as Ben Wood of CCS, they thought that 5 million in a year would be impressive. “Clearly my expectations were way lower than others,” commented Ben, which to me has echoes of the vastly inflated numbers that people expected smartwatches, and especially the Apple Watch, to sell, in the first year.

More relevant, I think, is the question of how the HomePod (or just “HomePod” – Apple never uses the definitive for its products, just as a parent wouldn’t for a child) is going to evolve.

And for that, it’s important to bear in mind how every single Apple product tends to evolve: from MVP, aka minimal viable product, to thing that people buy by the million.

Let’s go all the way back to the Bondi Blue iMac, from 1998, since that’s where the story of the modern Apple really begins. This was Apple trying to compete again in the PC market, and choosing to do so in an orthogonal way to pretty much everything else out there. It was all-in-one, it used USB (a new connector at the time), had no floppy drive (this alone was reckoned to spell its doom), and upgrading the RAM and hard drive was difficult.

But the next update showed the trajectory that Apple was on. The Bondi iMac gained colours, and it got more powerful, and added a DVD burner drive if you wanted. It didn’t revert to old connectors, but did add better sound.

iPod, youPod

Next, iPod.

Some of the iPod family – though there were more models and colours than this. Photo by Zengame on Flickr.

The first one was “expensive”, had a black and white and very pixel-y display, used a proprietary connector, had an unusual yet intuitive method for scrolling through songs, held 1,000 songs. As it evolved through the years, it generated variants that were smaller, had bigger and better screens, more memory, flash memory, but broadly the same controller and interface. (The iPod shuffle is like the Galapagos of iPods, but anyway.)

The MacBook Air (as at the top of the post). The first version had a very limited SSD drive, and underpowered processor. But it had those qualities of being thin and light and offering lots of battery power that people who could afford it really loved – especially when you compared to the average Windows laptop, which weighed tons more, had a DVD drive and floppy drive that road warriors in coffee shops didn’t need, and lasted much less long. You’d still recognise the first model today.

A calling for the iPhone


The iPhone X doesn’t look that different from the 6S, which doesn’t look that different from the original. Photo by Lucy Takakura on Flickr.

The iPhone is probably the poster child for MVP-ness. The first version’s software was limited (no MMS; no 3G; no text forwarding; no copy/paste), it was really expensive, its battery lasted a day when rival phones could last a week. But it could do so many things that others couldn’t, because of that touch screen and the concept of being a computer for your pocket, not a phone for your email. Subsequent versions have improved along pretty much every axis possible, apart from that battery life stuff (though the iPhone X is a big advance here).

The iPad. Look at these varieties.

iPad sizes have changed, but you’d still recognise the original if you’d only seen the newest, eight years on. Photo by MakeUseOf on Flickr.

The first version arrived in early 2010 and didn’t have a Retina screen (the iPhone 4, to be released later that year, would; but Retina screens at the size of an iPad were too expensive to contemplate for some time. What it did offer was something that wasn’t a PC trying to be squashed into a tablet form (which Dell and many others had been trying since 2001) and an approach to a big touch-driven screen that harked back to Jeff Haan’s remarkable TED demo of 2005. Since then, its screen has improved (hugely), it has gained an optional keyboard and pencil, and processor power has risen exponentially. But eight years on, the old and new look completely like siblings.

The Apple Watch. The first version could just about take you through a day if you didn’t exercise for too long. There has been plenty of tinkering with how the interface between apps works, but none with the basic concept of how you interact: lift-to-wake, or touches. The addition of GPS and phone data/calling has been welcomed, but if you hold the original Series 0 beside the latest Series 3, it’s essentially still the same thing: a device which hands off tasks from your phone to your wrist.

Bearing all this in mind, what should we expect from the HomePod’s evolution?

Again, look backward first. Look at the axes on which the previous devices evolved.
iMac:
Evolution: colour, extras, price, screen resolution, interfaces.
No evolution: size, shape.

iPod:
Evolution: colour, size, shape, control system, price, screen (colour-capable, video display-capable), output (to TV), interface (from proprietary Firewire, to 30-pin-Firewire and 30-pin USB, to Lightning; and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth in the iPod Touch), processor power.
No evolution: actually, pretty much everything about the iPod changed. (You could however argue that the iPod Touch is actually a cut-down iPhone, not an iPod, and that iPod evolution ended with the iPod shuffle of 2010 and iPod nano of 2012 – the latter being what some thought could be a precursor of an Apple wearable.)

MacBook Air:
Evolution: processor speed, screen size (smaller, never bigger than 13in), weight (reduced), disk size, price.
No evolution: screen quality (after all these years still isn’t Retina), shape, colour (there’s never been a black or rose gold MacBook Air; you want one, it’s aluminium).

iPhone:
Evolution: processor speed (duh), thickness, price, weight, colour, screen size, screen quality, login interface (from passcode to TouchID to FaceID), location capability (GPS, added in 2009’s iPhone 3GS), cameras (front-facing camera arrived on 2010’s iPhone 4).
No evolution: number of buttons (until the iPhone X, which removed the Home button), general interface, general portability, battery life

iPad:
Evolution: size, colour, processor speed, screen resolution, screen capability (Tru-Tone etc), price, functional accessories (Smart Keyboard, Pencil), interface (USB/30-pin to USB/Lightning).
No evolution: screen size ratio, battery life

Apple Watch:
Evolution: battery life, straps, GPS, 4G connectivity, price (by selling older models at lower prices, rather than having differently priced new models, as happened with the iPhone)
No evolution: screen size

All right. Bearing in mind all the above, how should we expect the HomePod hardware to evolve, and not to evolve?

An evolution before your eyes


A “HomePod evolution” concept. Photo by Martin Hajek on Flickr.

Softly spoken, software

Given the way that everything gains software capability, I expect it will gain the capability to play more services than just Apple Music. The ability to play Spotify (which is, don’t forget, the world’s biggest streaming music service) is an obvious piece of low-hanging fruit if you’re looking to tempt people to buy a better-sounding device. Remember, Apple is into hardware sales; Services may be the thing that it talks up, but hardware is the motor that drives the engine.

In which case, why sell HomePod v1 without Spotify capability? Because the v1 is always the MVP – the minimum viable product. Look at the iPhone. Look at the iPad. Look at the MacBook Air. Look at the Apple Watch. They all started out lacking capabilities that seemed obvious (the first iPad didn’t even have alarms, which the iPhone did) and then gained them. Apple has been circling around what the HomePod should do for years – it’s been in development since Siri came on board – and the fact that it took this long to get out of the design labs suggests the usual cautious approach. The people who have bought the first model are obviously, self-definingly, going to be people who like Apple stuff; it can’t, therefore, do any harm to only offer Apple Music as a music service. But putting Spotify on? That’s just a question of an API to Spotify, and an instruction set for Siri so it recognises “play X on Spotify” or “play the X playlist from Spotify”. It can probably be done through a software update.

Other software? Besides playing music, smart speakers’ utility seems to lie in (1) checking the weather forecast (2) setting kitchen timers (3) streaming music (4) setting alarms. Below that, the proportion of people who say they’ve ever done this stuff falls below 50% of smart speaker owners (per Comscore) and it’s hard to know how often people do it.

So – weather, timers, music, alarms. Dig down to the 30% level and there’s also home automation, product ordering (that’s going to be Amazon), calendars, and games/jokes/general questions. (The HomePod can also do iMessage sending and receiving, and FaceTime alls; those don’t come up in the “things people do” listing above 13%, but it’s not something you imagine people wanting to do a great deal.)

These are all things that you can do now. So when people complain about the HomePod’s capability, they’re really complaining that it doesn’t have other music services, and about Siri. The first is a software update, and the second is – well, Apple seems to be working on it.

Hard wearing, but what hardware?

What about hardware? What can we expect there? Is the HomePod more like the portable iPod, which had multiple axes of evolution, or the deskbound iMac? In truth, it might be even closer to a device which I didn’t mention in the list above: the Apple TV.

Like the ATV, the HomePod has a limited interface (via a remote, or by voice), and in general once put somewhere it stays there essentially forever. The ATV has hardly evolved at all – there are a couple of varieties (4K/not 4K) and storage variants, but its onscreen interface is unlike anything else that Apple does. That’s been forced by the limitations of interactions with a TV screen, which one typically views from across a room, and that seems to have limited what it can do.

There has been no evolution of size or colour, and little on price (aside from selling the older model at lower cost). The competition from lower-priced rivals such as Roku, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire Stick seems to have kept Apple stuck upmarket, and guarding its content (TV and movies bought on iTunes) jealously: you can’t get them on any of those three rivals without some DRM-fighting shenanigans.

There are signs of the HomePod taking up the same position. You can’t stream Apple Music on the Echo (though Amazon says it’s “open” to it) or Google Home. It’s possible Apple is going to treat the smart speaker market as being like the TV set-top box market – one to be fought over rigidly. Possibly that’s what caused the delay in its initial release: big internal fights over its future trajectory, for these things are all mapped out a couple of years ahead before the first product gets out of the door. (For example, iPhones are designed at least two years ahead.)

But I think that to make the HomePod as “closed” as the Apple TV would be a mistake, and given the way that other successful Apple products have evolved – different shapes and sizes and price points (to fit in with the way that people live their lives), greater software capability (to make the product indispensable, not just nice to have) – I’d expect to see more colours of HomePod, and lower-priced ones too.

It took Sonos years to diverge from its high-end music amps down to the Sonos One, but it’s the latter that was the hit because it found the sweet spot on price. The HomePod is more versatile than the Apple TV because it has more functions than just displaying content on a screen. It’s a voice-driven speaker, and that has lots of implications.

Conclusion

So that’s my thinking: adding Spotify is an open goal, HomePod 2 is a certainty, and we could see smaller HomePods in time if Apple decides that this is a market which is worth winning, rather than just taking part in (the latter being its approach with the Apple TV).

But the early sales numbers? They don’t tell us a lot. Because to lean on those as telling the story means to ignore the ironclad rule of Apple products: the first is the MVP. It’s the ones after that which tell you the trajectory of the device.

Start Up: eat that plastic!, Huawei backs out of US, more on Russia and Facebook, Nokia selling Withings, and more

Multiplayer Minesweeper!
Yes, everyone, multiplayer Minesweeper is here. Photo: timewaster’s own.

A selection of 14 links for you. Not the fourth client. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Engineering a plastic-eating enzyme • University of Portsmouth News

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Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase—a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET— and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: “Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”

The researchers made the breakthrough when they were examining the structure of a natural enzyme which is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, allowing a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

«

BRB just writing a screenplay about how humanity subsists on paper bags and wood boats after the enzyme mutates and eats everything plastic everywhere so it eats our TVs and computers and screens and keyboards and
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Apple is planning to launch a news subscription service • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Gerry Smith:

»

Apple plans to integrate recently acquired magazine app Texture into Apple News and debut its own premium subscription offering, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is part of a broader push by the iPhone maker to generate more revenue from online content and services.

The Cupertino, California company agreed last month to buy Texture, which lets users subscribe to more than 200 magazines for $9.99 a month. Apple cut about 20 Texture staff soon after, according to one of the people.

The world’s largest technology company is integrating Texture technology and the remaining employees into its Apple News team, which is building the premium service. An upgraded Apple News app with the subscription offering is expected to launch within the next year, and a slice of the subscription revenue will go to magazine publishers that are part of the program, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Apple declined to comment.

«

Makes complete sense. Services business, repeat business, content aggregation.
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Huawei, failing to crack US market, signals a change in tactics • The New York Times

Raymond Zhong and Paul Mozur:

»

Last week, the company laid off five American employees, including William B. Plummer, the executive who was the face of its Sisyphean efforts to win over Washington, according to people familiar with the matter. Huawei has also been dialing back its political outreach in the United States, these people said — which could end a decade of mostly fruitless efforts to dispel Washington’s accusations that the company has ties to the Chinese government.

Huawei’s tactics are changing as its business prospects in the United States have darkened considerably. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to proceed with a new rule that could effectively kill off what little business the company has in the United States. Although the proposed rule does not mention Huawei by name, it would block federally subsidized telecommunications carriers from using suppliers deemed to pose a risk to American national security.

Like other major tech companies, whether American or Chinese, Huawei (pronounced “HWA-way”) has been caught in the crossfire as the Trump administration ratchets up efforts to stop China’s high-tech ambitions. The two countries are waging a new kind of cold war, and with each increasingly suspicious of the other’s technology, winners are chosen based on national allegiances.

Huawei’s latest moves suggest that it has accepted that its political battles in the United States are not ones it is likely to win.

«

It’s doing OK in Europe, and very well in Asia and elsewhere, but the US now seems to be a closed market.
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Ajit Pai’s ex-broadband advisor arrested on charge of forging fiber contracts • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

»

The former head of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) has been arrested on a charge of wire fraud for allegedly tricking investors into pouring money into a fiber-optic network.

Elizabeth Pierce is accused of “forg[ing] guaranteed revenue contracts to fraudulently induce investors to invest more than $250m in a fiber optic cable network in Alaska,” according to a press release issued last week by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Pierce was the first chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s 29-member broadband committee, which has seen defections from municipal officials who say it has prioritized the interests of private Internet providers over those of cities and towns.

«

Peculiar thing: the Trump-backing Wall Street Journal has the same story about Pierce – except that unlike every other outlet which reported the story, it doesn’t mention that she sat on Pai’s broadband committee.

It’s amazing: Trump’s administration is like a vortex of corruption. If convicted, Pierce could get 20 years.

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OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to change the world — then it all went wrong • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

In late 2005, tech visionary and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte pulled the cloth cover off a small green computer with a bright yellow crank. The device was the first working prototype for Negroponte’s new nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, dubbed “the green machine” or simply “the $100 laptop.” And it was like nothing that Negroponte’s audience — at either his panel at a UN-sponsored tech summit in Tunis, or around the globe — had ever seen.

After UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered a glowing introduction, Negroponte explained exactly why. The $100 laptop would have all the features of an ordinary computer but require so little electricity that a child could power it with a hand crank. It would be rugged enough for children to use anywhere, instead of being limited to schools. Mesh networking would let one laptop extend a single internet connection to many others. A Linux-based operating system would give kids total access to the computer — OLPC had reportedly turned down an offer of free Mac OS X licenses from Steve Jobs. And as its name suggested, the laptop would cost only $100, at a time when its competitors cost $1,000 or more.

“We really believe we can make literally hundreds of millions of these machines available to children around the world,” Negroponte promised. “And it’s not just $100. It’s going to go lower.” He hinted that big manufacturing and purchasing partners were on the horizon, and demonstrated the laptop’s versatile hardware, which could be folded into a chunky e-reader, a simple gaming console, or a tiny television.

Then, Negroponte and Annan rose for a photo-op with two OLPC laptops, and reporters urged them to demonstrate the machines’ distinctive cranks. Annan’s crank handle fell off almost immediately. As he quietly reattached it, Negroponte managed half a turn before hitting the flat surface of the table.

«

So much went wrong: the design, the software (people didn’t want a desktop Linux their kids would never see again), the price. And the concept: technological determinism would triumph, surely. (As a side note, this is a terrific piece of investigation and writing by Robertson. A timeless piece, because it will always be a reminder against technological hubris.)
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Don’t trust anyone over 70 • Foreign Policy

Gautam Mukunda:

»

Even beyond the immediate effects of illness, aging can have pronounced effects on personality. Put simply, in general people really don’t mellow with age. Instead, Jerrold Post and Bert Park have shown that they tend to become exaggerated versions — almost caricatures — of themselves, with their normal tendencies and patterns becoming intensified. This tendency is particularly likely to affect foreign policy. The aggressive can become belligerent, the passive, apathetic. Tendencies that would otherwise have fallen within an acceptable range can suddenly become problematic — a shift that, when it happens to a head of government, is particularly likely to upset foreign policy.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, are aging’s effects on cognition. Some of these are well known. The advance of age tends to weaken recall, particularly of recent events, for example. Less commonly acknowledged, but perhaps more important, are aging’s effects on intelligence. Cognitive abilities can be split into two categories: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence is what we use to accomplish routine tasks. It increases over the course of a person’s life, peaking in the 60s. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to solve new problems. It seems to begin declining at 20. This asymmetric deterioration is perhaps the most worrying feature of aging. The increase in crystallized intelligence can serve to camouflage any real decline that might be occurring. Most situations, after all, are routine, and so a leader may seem entirely unaffected by age. Furthermore, governments are likely to have considerable institutional ability to handle such situations, which will tend to compensate for a leader’s compromised skills.

The most critical and dangerous situations, on the other hand, are novel ones — situations that the normal functioning of governmental institutions is least able to handle and that therefore require peak performance from a leader. This is precisely when an age-related decline in fluid intelligence is likely to have its most severe effects. So age-related decline may be most consequential at the worst possible moment.

Given the potential dangers, the burden of proof should be on aging leaders to justify their continued hold on power, not on those who challenge them.

«

Donald Trump will be 72 in June. (Vladimir Putin is 66 in October; Xi Jinping is 65 in June; Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005, is 64 in July; Theresa May is 61; Justin Trudeau turned 46 in December; Kim Jong-un is 34, or 35, or 36.)
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Whois is dead as Europe hands DNS overlord ICANN its arse • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

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In a letter [PDF] sent this week to DNS overseer ICANN, Europe’s data protection authorities have effectively killed off the current service, noting that it breaks the law and so will be illegal come 25 May, when GDPR comes into force.

The letter also has harsh words for ICANN’s proposed interim solution, criticizing its vagueness and noting it needs to include explicit wording about what can be done with registrant data, as well as introduce auditing and compliance functions to make sure the data isn’t being abused.

ICANN now has a little over a month to come up with a replacement to the decades-old service that covers millions of domain names and lists the personal contact details of domain registrants, including their name, email and telephone number.

ICANN has already acknowledged it has no chance of doing so: a blog post by the company in response to the letter warns that without being granted a special temporary exemption from the law, the system will fracture.

“Unless there is a moratorium, we may no longer be able to give instructions to the contracted parties through our agreements to maintain Whois,” it warns. “Without resolution of these issues, the Whois system will become fragmented.”

«

The GDPR says personal information can’t just be offered publicly. So WHOIS lookups on European individuals who own sites can’t show personal information. But ICANN lets it. Impasse, and big problem.
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Are external GPUs for Macs viable in macOS 10.13.4? We tested to find out • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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When software support is complete and everything works as intended, the performance gains we’ve seen here paint a rosy picture for the future of this technology as a way to augment laptops for games and creative applications. We recorded more playable frame rates in games and significantly improved benchmark scores over what we got with the internal GPU—and that’s with one of the fastest discrete GPUs in Apple’s laptops.

But even though the potential is vividly clear, the implementation is not yet complete. The experience is hit-and-miss depending on which software you’re using. Further, we experienced several crashes and unexpected behaviors, and while Metal performance is greatly improved, the performance gap isn’t as big for apps built for OpenGL—and unfortunately, many consumer Mac applications still are.

eGPUs might be publicly supported now, but they’re still not ready for primetime. The experience is too unstable, support isn’t robust enough, there are too many caveats and limitations, and Boot Camp support will be necessary for eGPUs to be attractive to many consumers.

That said, I see where Apple is going with this, and I’m convinced that it could be viable if the company expands support in the right ways. Apple clearly intends this to be the upgrade and expansion path for its iMac Pro and MacBook Pro computers, and if the software support falls into place, I believe that can work out as the company and its users hope. After all, video editors are already accustomed to connecting their machines to various other equipment in their edit bays.

«

Once developers (including Apple, it seems: Final Cut Pro doesn’t yet support eGPUs) update their software, it should get there. It’s hoping for a lot that you could seamlessly add an external GPU. (There’s a good discussion, if you have a couple of hours, about this when Matthew Panzarino appeared on John Gruber’s The Talk Show recently.)


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Nokia’s Health division is up for sale (again) and Nest is interested • Wareable

Hugh Langley:

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Nokia is close to finalizing a sale of its Health division, which is made up mostly of the assets of Withings, the company it acquired in 2016.

Among the interested potential bidders is Nest, the Alphabet smart home subsidiary currently being merged back into Google, according to sources familiar with the matter. Two French companies and one other non-European company are also said to be in the running, as reported by French news outlet Les Echos.

However, following the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political data firm accessed private information of up to 87 million Facebook users, the French government is concerned that a sale to Google in the current climate could be received badly, say sources.

«

Nokia never quite figured out what to do with Withings, despite spending €170m on it, acquired “to accelerate entry into Digital Health”. Its smartphone project had died, and thus it had no convincing consumer-facing business. Whose bad idea was it? Let’s rewind to that press release:

»

“We have said consistently that digital health was an area of strategic interest to Nokia, and we are now taking concrete action to tap the opportunity in this large and important market,” said Rajeev Suri, president & CEO of Nokia.

«

Might not want to count on this year’s bonus, Rajeev. No way Nokia is getting €170m back on this sale.
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Mutliplayer Minesweeper

Yes, it really is. The most timewasting you can all do together. (I couldn’t work out how to flag squares and so played sacrificial lamb, hitting mines instead of marking them.)
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Apple grabs 86% of smartphone profits globally, iPhone X alone seizes 35% • Apple Insider

Mike Wuerthele:

»

According to a study by Counterpoint Research seen by AppleInsider, Apple gained one percentage point of the profit year-over-year in a static smartphone market. Not only that, but the iPhone X itself generated five times the profit than the combined profits of over 600 Android manufacturers during the fourth quarter of 2017.

“The share of iPhone X is likely to grow as it advances further into its life-cycle,” said Counterpoint Research Analyst Karn Chauhan. “Additionally, the longer shelf life of all iPhones ensured that Apple still has eight out of top 10 smartphones, including its three-year-old models, generating the most profits compared to current competing smartphones from other OEMs.”

Counterpoint expects more stiff competition in the next year —but it has predicted the same for the last two years, and it has not yet materialized.

«

And you can probably count ZTE out of that after yesterday’s news, and Huawei (as above) might have a bit of a problem too. It’s Apple and Samsung all the way: one has the components business locked down, the other has pricing power in spades.
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Facebook admits tracking users and non-users off-site • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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“When you visit a site or app that uses our services, we receive information even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account. This is because other apps and sites don’t know who is using Facebook,” [Facebook product manager David] Baser wrote.

“Whether it’s information from apps and websites, or information you share with other people on Facebook, we want to put you in control – and be transparent about what information Facebook has and how it is used.”

But the company’s transparency has still not extended to telling non-users what it knows about them – an issue Zuckerberg also faced questions over from Congress. Asked by Texas representative Gene Green whether all information Facebook holds about a user is in the file the company offers as part of its “download your data” feature, Zuckerberg had responded he believed that to be the case.

Privacy campaigner Paul-Olivier Dehaye disagreed, noting that, even as a Facebook user, he had been unable to access personal data collected through the company’s off-site tracking systems. Following an official subject access request under EU law, he told MPs last month, Facebook had responded that it was unable to provide the information.

“They’re saying they’re so big the cost would be too large to provide me data,” he said. “They’re really arguing that they’re too big to comply with data protection law, the cost is too high, which is mind-boggling.”

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FCC moves to block wireless carriers from using subsidies to buy Chinese telecom gear • WSJ

John McKinnon:

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US regulators adopted a measure on Tuesday aimed at barring wireless carriers from using federal subsidies to buy telecommunications gear made by Chinese manufacturers.

The vote by the Federal Communications Commission was 5-0.

The measure would prohibit US carriers from using federal universal-service subsidies to buy equipment from companies seen as posing a national security threat. Universal-service subsidies total almost $9bn a year. They support service for high-cost rural areas, for schools and libraries and for low-income consumers and residents of tribal lands.

The FCC will receive public comment and gather more information before approving a final rule in the coming months. Several commissioners suggested they would want to weigh national-security benefits against the plan’s potential effects on consumers.

The plan could hit smaller rural phone companies and internet providers that sometimes depend on Chinese-made equipment. Large wireless providers such as AT&T have long steered clear of Chinese companies like Huawei. Huawei has been effectively barred from big US businesses since a 2012 congressional report alleged the Chinese government could force the company to assist in espionage or cyberattacks—an accusation that Huawei has denied.

«

The squeeze on Chinese technology companies is intensifying abruptly. First ZTE, now this.
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How Russian Facebook ads divided and targeted US voters before the 2016 election • WIRED

Issie Lapowsky:

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In the course of her six-week study in 2016, [professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mie] Kim collected mounds of evidence about how the IRA and other suspicious groups sought to divide and target the US electorate in the days leading up to the election. Now, Kim is detailing those findings in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Political Communication. The researchers couldn’t find any trace, in federal records or online, of half of the 228 groups it tracked that purchased Facebook ads about controversial political issues in that six-week stretch. Of those so-called “suspicious” advertisers, one in six turned out to be associated with the Internet Research Agency, according to the list of accounts Facebook eventually provided to Congress…

…Over the last few months, Kim says she’s spent lots of weekends poring over these ads. “It was pretty depressing,” she says. One ad shared by multiple suspicious groups read: “Veterans before illegals. 300,000 Veterans died waiting to be seen by the VA. Cost of healthcare for illegals 1.1 billion per year.”

…The second part of Kim’s research focused on who exactly these unregulated ads—including both standard dark money ads and Russian ads—targeted. She found that voters in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, all states with tight races, were the most targeted. Specifically, voters in Wisconsin were targeted with gun ads about 72% more often than the national average. She also found that white voters received 87% of all immigration ads.

It makes sense that swing states would be more heavily targeted overall leading up to an election. And Kim didn’t analyze the Russians trolls’ targets independently from the other unregulated ads, given the small sample size of 19 groups.

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Facebook somehow didn’t keep this data; fortunately Kim did.
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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: Tesla’s factory pains, accessing Alexa, Google’s Maps spam trouble, and more


ZTE’s handset business is abruptly in big trouble: it can’t use Google’s Android apps. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Re-watching The Third Man. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tesla says its factory is safer—but it left injuries off the books • MIT Technology Review

Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry:

»

Under fire for mounting injuries, Tesla recently touted a sharp drop in its injury rate for 2017, which it says came down to meet the auto industry average of about 6.2 injuries per 100 workers.

But things are not always as they seem at Tesla. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Tesla has failed to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.

Last April, Tarik Logan suffered debilitating headaches from the fumes of a toxic glue he had to use at the plant. He texted his mom: “I’m n hella pain foreal something ain’t right.”

The searing pain became so unbearable he couldn’t work, and it plagued him for weeks.

But Logan’s inhalation injury, as it was diagnosed, never made it onto the official injury logs that state and federal law requires companies to keep. Neither did reports from other factory workers of sprains, strains and repetitive stress injuries from piecing together Tesla’s sleek cars.

Instead, company officials labeled the injuries personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid, according to internal company records obtained by Reveal.

Undercounting injuries is one symptom of a more fundamental problem at Tesla: The company has put its manufacturing of electric cars above safety concerns, according to five former members of its environment, health and safety team who left the company last year. That, they said, has put workers unnecessarily in harm’s way.

«

Tesla isn’t quite getting things right, it seems. Also: that auto industry average seems very high.
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Alexa is a revelation for the blind • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

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Sure, Dad [who is almost completely blind after a car accident in 1954] can still pick up the phone and call people. But who talks on the phone anymore?

Now, at 82—and with a different technology on offer—Dad is willing to adapt. After his initial fumbles with the Echo, he begins to get the hang of it, asking Alexa for football scores and stock-market updates, or to tell him who the president of Venezuela is. He discovers that, for some reason, Alexa isn’t set up to report the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei index, and he begins to enjoy posing questions the device can’t answer. He taunts it the way everyone else does: “Alexa, what would you like for breakfast?”

Dad’s background as a psychologist makes his initial error of address—Electra rather than Alexa—accidentally funny. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, coined the Electra complex to name a girl’s competition with her mother for the attention of her father—the feminine corollary of the Oedipus complex. But unlike in Jung’s formulation, my mother relishes this new interloper. For decades, Mom has facilitated my father’s access to news and information—and she’s happy to be unseated by a rival, even if it’s just a fabric-covered cylinder with a light on top. Even so, this new setup is not perfect. “Dad often gets his commands wrong,” Mom reports, “and he gets frustrated when she does not understand him.”

When I was younger, Dad would write me letters—big, weird, angular script on stationery left over from his private practice. That became harder for him over time, as his vision and dexterity degraded—and I was never a very good written correspondent anyway. Then email and text messaging came along, and communication began to channel through computers—and for Dad, through my mother. There’s a difference between being read a letter addressed to you, and being a secondary party to communications on someone else’s personal device.

The Echo promised to rectify this slight. Dad can dictate a message to Alexa, and it will arrive on my Echo, as well as in an app on my phone, as both a recording and a transcribed text message.

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UK and US move on Chinese group, citing national security • FT

Nic Fildes, Shawn Donnan and Pan Kwan Yuk:

»

Britain and the US have moved against one of China’s largest telecoms equipment makers, adding to a growing list of restrictions imposed by western governments on Chinese companies on national security grounds.

The measures taken against ZTE Corp, which cuts it off from US suppliers and bars it entirely from doing business in the UK, comes amid a particularly aggressive move by the Trump administration, which has already used the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, a secretive national security body, to block or force changes to several Chinese-linked deals.

It also is likely to add to mounting economic tension between Washington and Beijing, which are locked in a rhetorical trade war that threatens to impose tariffs on $150bn in bilateral trade.

US commerce department officials insisted the move was not related to other actions taken in recent weeks by the White House, noting ZTE’s violations were first investigated by the Obama administration. But experts said the sanctions were part of a growing anti-China backlash not only in London and Washington, but also Germany, Australia and Canada.

“Things are pretty rocky right now,” said Matthew Goodman, an expert on US-Asian economic ties at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

«

The US said ZTE had supplied Iran and North Korea with equipment; the UK says ZTE’s ownership by the Chinese government raises security concerns.

While it will be able to use open-source Android (AOSP), ZTE is going to be stuffed in trying to sell handsets outside China. It won’t be able to get Google’s Play Store or other apps. ZTE was, until now, the fourth-biggest phone vendor in the US (says analyst Avi Greengart). Here’s the US Dept of Commerce order: US companies are banned from providing hardware or software.

And the network equipment business, a far more lucrative space, is in effect shot in two gigantic markets. ZTE is toast.
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Hundreds of thousands of spam listings on Google “My Maps” • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden:

»

Back in 2007, Google introduced “My Maps”: “Easily create custom maps with the places that matter to you. Allow friends to see and edit your maps, or publish them to the whole world.”

Like most Google products, it was effectively abandoned after launch – receiving a superficial update in 2014. Now it is a haven for spammers and fraudsters.

Even Google’s mighty AI is unable to detect this complex spam…

How big a problem is this? Pretty big.

Each of those “My Maps” contains a link to a dodgy site delivering dubious downloads. There is, of course, no “report spam” button on these maps. Even if there were, I’m not sure I could be bothered to do Google’s job for them.

Naturally, people have reported this spam to Google many times before, but Google show no signs of removing it.

«

Oddly enough, the BBC consumer programme You And Yours had an item on the same day about scammers who had changed the phone numbers for contacting UK Job Centres: normally they are freephone numbers, but the scammers changed it so they would get paid. How? By editing details on Google map listings, which of course “Anyone can edit!”

Google’s MyMaps thing has been a complete pain for years because it scales so badly: the likelihood of malicious actors is far bigger than the ability of checkers to catch them.
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FTC obtains court orders banning marketer from negative-option sales • Federal Trade Commission

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The ringleader of an operation that lured people into an expensive negative-option scam using a low-cost “trial” offer for tooth whiteners and other products is banned from negative-option sales under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

The settlement order is one of three orders resolving FTC charges against Blair McNea, Jennifer Johnson, Danielle Foss and 59 corporate defendants. The defendants’ deceptive claims, hidden disclosures and confusing terms tricked people into providing their billing information, supposedly to pay shipping and a nominal cost for a trial product. They charged consumers for two ongoing subscriptions to nearly identical products until the consumers canceled. As a result, consumers who believed they had agreed to buy a single trial product for about $5 were charged about $200 a month until they canceled both unauthorized subscriptions.

Under settlement orders announced today, McNea and the corporate defendants are banned from negative-option sales, and from assisting others engaged in deceptive negative-option sales, and Foss and Johnson are subject to restrictions on negative-option marketing. The orders impose a judgment of $92,011,601, which represents the amount consumers lost to the scam. The remaining portion of the judgment will be suspended upon the surrender of the defendants’ assets, including money, vehicles, and proceeds from the sale of two homes.

«

This “negative option” stuff is rife in the US. This though might dissuade companies from doing it.
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In a leaked memo, Apple warns employees to stop leaking information • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

The Cupertino, California-based company said in a lengthy memo posted to its internal blog that it “caught 29 leakers,” last year and noted that 12 of those were arrested. “These people not only lose their jobs, they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere,” Apple added. The company declined to comment on Friday.

Apple outlined situations in which information was leaked to the media, including a meeting earlier this year where Apple’s software engineering head Craig Federighi told employees that some planned iPhone software features would be delayed. Apple also cited a yet-to-be-released software package that revealed details about the unreleased iPhone X and new Apple Watch.

Leaked information about a new product can negatively impact sales of current models, give rivals more time to begin on a competitive response, and lead to fewer sales when the new product launches, according to the memo. “We want the chance to tell our customers why the product is great, and not have that done poorly by someone else,” Greg Joswiak, an Apple product marketing executive, said in the memo.

The crackdown is part of broader and long-running attempts by Silicon Valley technology companies to track and limit what information their employees share publicly. Firms like Google and Facebook Inc. are pretty open with staff about their plans, but keep close tabs on their outside communications and sometime fire people when they find leaks.

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Steve Sinofsky wrote a long thread about this on Twitter. (The link is to the “unrolled” version.) Apple’s hate of leaks is legendary, but this memo (whose leaker[s] won’t have felt they were at much risk with an all-hands blogpost) is standard. Don’t forget, Apple has a session with everyone who joins where it drills into them Not To Leak Or Risk Getting Fired.
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UK and US accuse Russia of hacking home routers in global cyberattacks • Forbes

Thomas Fox-Brewster:

»

[UK National Cyber Security Centre director, Ciaran] Martin said the sustained targeting had continued for months and could have been used for espionage, the theft of intellectual property, or for “use in times of tension.” He said millions of machines were being targeted and many had been seized by hackers to get access to ISP customers, to spy on organizations and their connections. That included the UK government, he added.

[Cybersecurity coordinator at the National Security Council, Rob] Joyce said “we can’t rule out Russia may attempt to use this [hacked] infrastructure for further attacks.” Advice will be handed out to potentially affected entities today, marking the first time the U.K. and the U.S. has pushed out such recommendations together. “The actions you’re seeing today is one in a series of steps against this unacceptable activity,” Joyce added.

Jeanette Manfra, chief cybersecurity official for the DHS, said that amongst its techniques, the Russians had scanned for devices running vulnerable Cisco Smart Install software designed to make it easy to set up network equipment from the massive networking manufacturer. Cisco itself recently warned about attacks aimed at the product, warning they could put critical infrastructure at risk.

«

Routers were used to create a Mirai IoT botnet by amateur hackers; wouldn’t bet that state hackers couldn’t do something more subtle.
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Britain does a great job of opening its data, except for what journalists really want • Online Journalism Blog

SA Mathieson has just produced a new ebook, “Britdata”:

»

Some specific recent improvements have made it easier and cheaper to do good journalism with public data: in June 2015, for example, Companies House, which covers England and Wales, dropped charges for online access to documents including companies’ annual filings. I was able to use that access to track how little tax companies including Facebook, Google and Apple pay in Britain.

More generally, the Office for National Statistics releases a wealth of data in machine-readable formats.


Britain is joint second with Australia in the Open Data Index

The UK government also makes it straightforward for people to reuse this data through the Open Government Licence, which is broadly similar to the Creative Commons Attribution licence with a few exceptions including images and personal data.

The fact that commercial reuse is clearly allowed is helpful for journalists trying to find new uses for their research. I have taken advantage of this in my new e-book Britdata — as well as providing a guide to data available on Britain it also includes mini-profiles of all the UK’s 206 top-tier council areas with topline numbers for population, health and economic output.

The same open data has been used in the Journalists’ Local Authority Directory, an information and contacts service already available to members of the Chartered Institute of Journalists and the Society of Authors, and in the near future the National Union of Journalists.

«

However… he does have criticisms. But (12 years after beginning the Free Our Data campaign) I feel pretty happy about the general state of this.
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Google AMP for Email: what it is and why it’s a bad idea • NY Mag

Vijith Assar:

»

AMP for the web is ostensibly solving a performance problem that simply doesn’t exist in the context of email. Bloated advertisements woven into the pages you want to see are a core part of the economy of the internet, and can kill your speed and battery life on mobile devices. In contrast, unexpected third-party ads in email messages aren’t a meaningful problem (outside of unsolicited spam, which is a substantially separate concern altogether). One of the fundamental miscalculations of AMP for Email is that it degrades the delivery speed of a medium in which nobody really likes rich-message content to begin with. AMP for the web was a faster subset of the standard web, but AMP for Email is a slower superset of standard email. The product name is a misnomer — it’s not accelerated at all!

There’s a steep cost: In order to add interactivity, AMP for Email executes JavaScript code in the messages for the first time, creating an enormous new target for malicious hackers. Google’s engineering and security are nearly always best in class, and you can be sure that the various scripts required for AMP features will be vigorously protected, but this is email’s biggest new attack vector since file attachments began carrying viruses.

All this to what end? AMP for Email may be an extension of email, but it is not a meaningful extension of email. There are some slick new display options, simple actions that could be accomplished with a link, a bit of that strange dynamic content, and not much else. And yet this will require carving out a schism between AMP and non-AMP email, between compatible and incompatible apps and clients. Just about one of the silliest things you can possibly do to a communication medium is artificially bifurcate it.

«

I missed this when it premiered in March. It’s a colossally bad idea that could have come out of Microsoft in 1998, when its approach to standards was “embrace, extend, extinguish”.
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: TurboTax’s dark patterns, fiduciary Facebook, Rome’s (real) collapse, Xiaomi and GoPro?, and more


Cocktail party? Google can listen in on specific voices for you. Well, for itself. Photo by James Vaughan on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Who knows what the GDPR says. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TurboTax UX and dark patterns critiqued • Medium

Brandon Read:

»

It’s important to recognize that TurboTax is one of many tax-preparation corporations lobbying against legislation that could greatly simplify the filing process for millions of Americans. This means it’s in their best interest to perpetuate the existing convoluted tax system so that they may continue to generate massive profits each year. We’ll explore concrete examples of unethical design strategies TurboTax employs to generate these profits.

TurboTax dissuades customers from using their Free offering by exaggerating the benefits of their mid-tier (or “recommended”) paid service and by fabricating obstacles that trick users into paying for unnecessary upgrades. While the paid service offers benefits that may be applicable to some users (such as specialist support and increased security), most filers would be perfectly happy (and just as successful) filing their taxes through the Free product. Instead of surfacing this reality, TurboTax buries it by manufacturing the illusion of complexity and time-scarcity. The following UX teardown shines a critical light on these Dark Patterns, and offers users tips on how to stay in control when navigating the modern freemium landscape.

«

There are so many dark patterns in this stuff that it’s like a black knitted blanket.
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We may own our data, but Facebook has a duty to protect it • The New Yorker

Nathan Heller:

»

Two years ago, Jack M. Balkin, a constitutional-law professor at Yale, published a fifty-page article in the U.C. Davis Law Review examining what he called problems “at the intersection of information privacy and the First Amendment.” On one hand, he noted, people want to protect private information. On the other, information businesses tend to challenge regulation as infringements of free speech. Balkin ran through some prospective solutions. The government could regulate the collection and use of information, or the time, place, and manner of expression. Companies could treat data as commercial speech, or as a commodity. Platforms could make privacy contracts with their users. Yet Balkin found all these options lacking. Instead, he offered the idea of the “information fiduciary.” Fiduciaries, in traditional contexts, are defined by two responsibilities. They must be loyal to their clients’ interests, and they must show a “duty of care.”

It was no surprise to find Balkin’s article mentioned during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees earlier this week. To a striking degree, the fiduciary model was the one toward which discussion slowly and chaotically converged. The hearing revealed little about Facebook, the company that Zuckerberg founded, and a lot about the committees, which at times seemed hair-raisingly ill-equipped for their task…

…What a duty of care might look like for a company such as Facebook was the meat of Balkin’s paper in 2016. One benefit of an information fiduciary, he argued, is that it has widely and easily understood obligations that go beyond a written policy. (You can reasonably expect your tax accountant not to send your financial information to the nearest newsroom, regardless of whether there’s an explicit agreement to that effect.)

«

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The “GDPR consent” email I’d like to receive • informationrightsandwrongs

Jon Baines:

»

“Dear Jon

You know us. We’re that firm you placed an order with a few months ago. You may remember that at the time we took your order we explained we were going to send occasional marketing emails to you about similar products and services, but you could opt out then, and at any subsequent point.

We know that since 2003 (with the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations) (PECR) it’s been unlawful to send unsolicited marketing emails except in circumstances like those above.

We’re contacting you now because we’ve noticed a lot of competitors (and other firms) who are either utterly confused or utterly misrepresenting a new law (separate to PECR) called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). They’re claiming it means they have to contact you to reconfirm your consent to receive marketing emails.

GDPR actually says nothing of the sort. It does explain what “consent” means in data protection terms in a slightly more strict way, but for companies like us, who’ve respected our customers and prospective customers all along, it makes no difference…”

«

Plenty more. The GDPR is one of the least understood laws around, one suspects.
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Rome wasn’t built in a day but these days it feels as if it may collapse in one • The Guardian

Tobias Jones on the sinkholes cropping up all over Rome:

»

In November – and this is a sure sign things are serious – Lazio’s football match against Udinese was postponed due to torrential rain. Last week, there was more flooding of the subway. In the past month, central Italy has had 141% more “anomalous rainfall” than average.

Rain is a problem because of the city’s geology. Much of Rome is built on unconsolidated (ie soft) sediments, like the floodplain of the river Tiber. That means that water washes away small deposits that give the ground additional rigidity. Soft soil also amplifies not just earthquake tremors (hence the missing south side of the Colosseum) but also the vibrations of the city’s incessant traffic, causing what the president of Lazio’s guild of geologists calls “the liquefaction of the ground”. It’s like shaking a sieve full of water and clay below the asphalt: soon enough, the water will whisk away the grit and you’ll be left with a jelly-like blob to support the heavy traffic.

Additional water comes not from the skies but from the creaking subterranean infrastructure. Ancient aqueducts, such as the Vergine one that supplies the Trevi fountain, are still in use. Because of leaks, 50% of water is lost between the Lazio region’s freshwater lakes and Romans’ taps. Many of the city’s sewers are so old they’re made of cracked brick and tiles. And the fact that there are 32 sq km of tunnels, cavities, catacombs and quarries beneath the surface of the city hardly helps.

In many ways, the city council has exacerbated the problem: it is perennially corrupt and chronically incompetent. Last December, it was unable even to buy a green evergreen for Christmas. The tendering process for road repairs and reconstruction has been dragging on for years, because Roman bureaucracy is like treacle. And when a contract is finally awarded, companies often cut corners, patching roads badly because that way there will be more work in future.

«

Remarkable piece; it makes it feel as though Italy, or at least Rome, is on the verge of collapse.
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Google works out a fascinating, slightly scary way for AI to isolate voices in a crowd • Ars Technica

Jeff Dunn:

»

The company says this tech works on videos with a single audio track and can isolate voices in a video algorithmically, depending on who’s talking, or by having a user manually select the face of the person whose voice they want to hear.

Google says the visual component here is key, as the tech watches for when a person’s mouth is moving to better identify which voices to focus on at a given point and to create more accurate individual speech tracks for the length of a video.

According to the blog post, the researchers developed this model by gathering 100,000 videos of “lectures and talks” on YouTube, extracting nearly 2,000 hours worth of segments from those videos featuring unobstructed speech, then mixing that audio to create a “synthetic cocktail party” with artificial background noise added.

Google then trained the tech to split that mixed audio by reading the “face thumbnails” of people speaking in each video frame and a spectrogram of that video’s soundtrack. The system is able to sort out which audio source belongs to which face at a given time and create separate speech tracks for each speaker. Whew.

«

Creepy machine learning! Let’s continue that thread…
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Facebook uses AI to predict your future actions for advertisers, says confidential document • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

»

The recent document, described as “confidential,” outlines a new advertising service that expands how the social network sells corporations’ access to its users and their lives: Instead of merely offering advertisers the ability to target people based on demographics and consumer preferences, Facebook instead offers the ability to target them based on how they will behave, what they will buy, and what they will think. These capabilities are the fruits of a self-improving, artificial intelligence-powered prediction engine, first unveiled by Facebook in 2016 and dubbed “FBLearner Flow.”

One slide in the document touts Facebook’s ability to “predict future behavior,” allowing companies to target people on the basis of decisions they haven’t even made yet. This would, potentially, give third parties the opportunity to alter a consumer’s anticipated course.

Here, Facebook explains how it can comb through its entire user base of over 2 billion individuals and produce millions of people who are “at risk” of jumping ship from one brand to a competitor. These individuals could then be targeted aggressively with advertising that could pre-empt and change their decision entirely — something Facebook calls “improved marketing efficiency.” This isn’t Facebook showing you Chevy ads because you’ve been reading about Ford all week — old hat in the online marketing world — rather Facebook using facts of your life to predict that in the near future, you’re going to get sick of your car. Facebook’s name for this service: “loyalty prediction.”

«

AI for everything!
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How I implemented iPhone X’s FaceID using Deep Learning in Python • Medium

Norman Di Palo:

»

Performing classification, for a neural network, means learning to predict if the face it has seen it’s the users’s one or not. So, it should use some training data to predict “true” or “false”, basically, but differently from a lot of other deep learning use cases, here this approach would not work. First, the network should re-train from scratch using the new obtained data from the user’s face.

This would require a lot of time, energy consumption, and impractical availability of training data of different faces to have negative examples (little would change in case of transfer learning and fine tuning of an already trained network). Furthermore, this method would not exploit the possibility, for Apple, to train a much more complex network “offline”, i.e. in their laboratories, and then ship it already trained and ready to use in their phones.

Instead, I believe FaceID is powered by a siamese-like convolutional neural network that is trained “offline” by Apple to map faces into a low-dimensional latent space shaped to maximize distances between faces of different people, using a contrastive loss. What happens is that you get an architecture capable of doing one shot learning, as they very briefly mentioned at their Keynote. I know, there are some names that could not be familiar to many readers: keep reading, and I will explain step by step what I mean.

«

If you’re into machine learning, this is quite a read.
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My 9.7 iPad (2018) review: Drawn, written, edited, and produced with an iPad • iMore

Serenity Caldwell:

»

It’s no secret to say that the iPad has changed how I work and think on my devices. I use it for work, roller derby, casual sketching and idea generation, watching movies, and so much more. And it’s why I’ve continually been bullish on the device, even when sales lagged and great multitasking was but a rumor on the road map.

To me, the 2018 base-model 9.7-inch iPad is a special beast: It hits a line drive right through the company’s fabled intersection of technology and liberal arts — and at the right price point. The iPad Pro did it first, but at a cost unattainable for all but the tinkerers and serious artists, and without iOS 11’s crucial multitasking features. At $329, the iPad offers a low-end tablet experience unlike any other on the market. Add an extra $99 for Apple Pencil, and Apple has created the best device for all-purpose education, period.

«

This is absolutely amazing.
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Elon Musk says Autopilot will never be perfect but can ‘reduce accidents by a factor of 10’ • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

»

Earlier [on Sunday], CBS This Morning aired a new clip from its sit-down interview with Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The clip below centers on Tesla’s Autopilot feature, a topic that has been in the news quite a bit over the past few weeks following a tragic crash that saw a Model X in Autopilot mode careen into a highway divider before the vehicle’s battery pack burst into flames.

In the wake of the accident, Tesla said that the car’s Autopilot system warned the driver to place his hands on the wheel in the seconds leading up to the crash, warnings that Tesla claims were not heeded.

“The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead,” Tesla said earlier this week, “which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”

As part of the interview, CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King went on a drive with Musk in a Model 3 where the two talked briefly about all things Autopilot. When asked about the benefits of Autopilot if the feature requires users to keep their hands on the wheel, Musk responded: “Oh, it’s because the probability of an accident with autopilot is just less.”

«

Musk is pushing this hard, but I think that this case is not going to break in Tesla’s favour in the way that its response to the NY Times car critic did in 2013.
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Former operator of Android app pirate site Applanet gets three years’ probation • Android Police

Jason Hahn:

»

Aaron Buckley, who was an enterprising 15-year-old when he launched Applanet from his parents’ home in Mississippi, pleaded guilty to two counts of his indictment: conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and criminal copyright infringement. The Northern District Court of Georgia announced on April 11th that Buckley, now in his mid-20s, will be placed under three years’ probation and will also be put into a home-incarceration program for 365 days. He will also have to complete 20 hours of community service, work toward his GED, pay a $200 “special assessment” fee, and refrain from owning a firearm or possessing a controlled substance.

Buckley’s attorney pushed for a lenient sentence from US District Judge Timothy Batten, framing Buckley’s life since launching the site for pirated Android apps as one of community work and taking a leadership role in a support community for LGBT teenagers. He also spoke of unspecified difficulties in Buckley’s personal life.

“I really respect the government and the judge in their sentencing and am extremely grateful that they took into account all concerns of my health and life situation in regards to possible sentences,” Buckley told TorrentFreak.

«

The tiny bit that struck my eye was the “refrain from owning a firearm”. I don’t see why operating an app pirating site would make you unsafe to own a gun. Would it?
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Xiaomi could be just the hero GoPro needs • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tim Culpan:

»

GoPro’s problem is that it hasn’t done much in 16 years. Its product line is little changed, with mere iterations of the same tiny rugged camera, and the company still relies on its home market for the bulk of sales. Consider that in 2004 – when GoPro released its first camera – Apple Inc.’s hottest product by units was the iPod.

The few attempts to diversify have failed. An entry into the drone market in 2016 lasted less than 15 months at a time when DJI and others were enjoying booming growth. Asia accounts for just 21% of revenue.

Xiaomi, meanwhile, can’t be accused of standing still. The Chinese smartphone startup has its fingers in so many pies that it’s hard to keep up. So it makes sense that it would consider making a a bid for GoPro, as The Information reported. Xiaomi may offer up to $1bn, but doesn’t want to overpay, the news website said.

A tie-up with another device maker is exactly the future I envision for GoPro. Right now it’s a technical feat to film a day on the slopes, then take it back to show on the TV in your ski lodge. For many, it’s just easier to shoot with an iPhone and a selfie stick, which is the crowd Woodman should be chasing. A combination with Roku Inc., the provider of streaming content players, is one I have advocated for a while. Xiaomi has MiBox, as well as routers and other connected devices.

A $1bn outlay for Xiaomi shouldn’t damage its balance sheet, and the upside could be immense.

«

Agree – this could be just what GoPro needs (though I imagine a wailing at the idea of an American company being bought by a Chinese one). For good measure it could buy Fitbit too, which also needs a white knight while its smartwatch business seeks liftoff.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Netflix’s personal art, the Facebook ad scammers, PC market still stagnant, the missing Android security, and more


Apple’s HomePod: do we have any idea how popular it actually is? Photo by Joe Wilcox on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Somewhere, it’s Friday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Artwork personalization at Netflix • Medium

Ashok Chandrashekar, Fernando Amat, Justin Basilico and Tony Jebara, on the Netflix Techblog:

»

For many years, the main goal of the Netflix personalized recommendation system has been to get the right titles in front each of our members at the right time. With a catalog spanning thousands of titles and a diverse member base spanning over a hundred million accounts, recommending the titles that are just right for each member is crucial. But the job of recommendation does not end there. Why should you care about any particular title we recommend? What can we say about a new and unfamiliar title that will pique your interest? How do we convince you that a title is worth watching? Answering these questions is critical in helping our members discover great content, especially for unfamiliar titles. One avenue to address this challenge is to consider the artwork or imagery we use to portray the titles. If the artwork representing a title captures something compelling to you, then it acts as a gateway into that title and gives you some visual “evidence” for why the title might be good for you.


A Netflix homepage without artwork. This is how historically our recommendation algorithms viewed a page.


Artwork for Stranger Things that each receive over 5% of impressions from our personalization algorithm. Different images cover a breadth of themes in the show to go beyond what any single image portrays.

«

Breathtaking.
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Ad scammers need suckers, and Facebook helps find them • Bloomberg

Zeke Faux:

»

“I’m Robert Gryn, and when I’m not playing games or trying to build billion-dollar startups, I like to live life to the fullest,” he tells the camera in the trailer for his vlog, drinking from a mug that says “I’M A F—ING UNICORN.”

When I introduced myself in Berlin, Gryn suggested we decamp to a nearby bar, saying he was tired of getting so much attention. His online bravado was just an act, he said; in person, he preferred to affect a humble naiveté, as if he couldn’t believe where luck had taken him. He told me that having money taught him that materialism is unfulfilling. “Life is like the most beautiful game,” he said, sipping a beer in the sun, speaking in unaccented English he’d learned in international schools. “Money is just the high score.”

Gryn estimated that users of his tracking software place $400m worth of ads a year on Facebook and an additional $1.3bn elsewhere. (He later showed me reports that roughly support those figures.) It’s not just affiliates who think Gryn is at the pinnacle of the industry. In June, just before the conference, Facebook’s newly installed executive in charge of fighting shady ads, Rob Leathern, had invited him to the company’s London office to explain the latest affiliate tricks.

The basic process isn’t complicated. For example: A maker of bogus diet pills wants to sell them for $100 a month and doesn’t care how it’s done. The pill vendor approaches a broker, called an affiliate network, and offers to pay a $60 commission per sign-up. The network spreads the word to affiliates, who design ads and pay to place them on Facebook and other places in hopes of earning the commissions. The affiliate takes a risk, paying to run ads without knowing if they’ll work, but if even a small percentage of the people who see them become buyers, the profits can be huge.

Affiliates once had to guess what kind of person might fall for their unsophisticated cons, targeting ads by age, geography, or interests. Now Facebook does that work for them. The social network tracks who clicks on the ad and who buys the pills, then starts targeting others whom its algorithm thinks are likely to buy. Affiliates describe watching their ad campaigns lose money for a few days as Facebook gathers data through trial and error, then seeing the sales take off exponentially. “They go out and find the morons for me,” I was told by an affiliate who sells deceptively priced skin-care creams with fake endorsements from Chelsea Clinton.

«

Rob Leathern is straight-up focussed on getting rid of scam ads; the startup he ran before Facebook bought it was all about killing ad fraud (which I know infuriates him), and he hasn’t let up on that since joining it. Let’s hope that Gryn’s session with him helps stamp this stuff out.
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Apple’s stumbling HomePod isn’t the hot seller it wanted • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

During the opening pre-order weekend, the HomePod grabbed 72% of revenue in the smart speaker category. But in February and March, its share of revenue slipped to 19%, according to Slice Intelligence, compared with 68% for Amazon. Google Home and Sonos Ones garnered 8% and 5% of revenues, respectively. (Slice estimated the sales by monitoring e-commerce receipts.)

Gene Munster, a co-founder of Loup Ventures and a long-time Apple watcher, expects HomePod sales to pick up in the holiday shopping season. He says Apple will probably sell 7 million HomePods this year and close to 11 million in 2019. By contrast, Munster predicts that Amazon will sell 29 million Echos this year and 39 million in 2019. Alphabet, he estimates, will move 18 million Google Homes in 2018 and about 32 million the following year.

The HomePod will almost certainly improve. Not every Apple product was a hit out of the gate. The Apple Watch faced challenges when it launched, too, and is now widely recognized as the top performing smartwatch on the market (although still a tiny part of its maker’s business).

«

The HomePod bears some consideration. It’s a really good speaker (pair it with an Apple TV and you have a soundbar for that output) but it isn’t trying to be the things that the Echo range or Google Home range are. You can view that as a failure, on the basis that Amazon and Google have defined the category, or that it’s most focussed on the thing people want a good speaker to do: play music.

But today I was also wondering about the inability of any Apple device to run two timers at once (something which Echo and Google Home devices do), and thinking there are some real blind spots in Apple’s view of the world. Seven million is a good number of devices, but it’s hard not to think that these devices are mutually exclusive.

(Neil Cybart, at Above Avalon, is pretty suspicious of the numbers; he thinks they overestimate Apple’s expectations of initial sales, given the limited distribution at first, and also overestimate likely sales this year. He prefers 4m-5m.)
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New Apple Music head named as service surpasses 40 million subscribers • Variety

Shirely Halperin:

»

Apple Music is thinking globally as the streaming service officially surpasses 40 million paid subscribers. Today, the company announced the promotion of Oliver Schusser to lead Apple Music Worldwide. His new title is vice president of Apple Music & International Content. Schusser has led efforts outside the U.S. related to the App Store, iTunes’ movies and TV portals, iBooks, Apple Podcasts, and more. He has worked closely with Apple svp of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue, who hired Schusser some 14 years ago and also announced his promotion to staff earlier this morning (April 11).

«

There’s quite the PR tussle going on between Apple and Spotify for the announced number of subscribers. The story also says there are 8m “auditioning” via free trials, which gives an idea of its churn/conversion rate – which seems pretty favourable – and that in the US it’s growing at 5% per month in the US, vs 2% for Spotify.

Schusser was based in London, where he worked on the Shazam acquisition. (Apple owns it now.) But now he’s off to Cupertino and LA. Better weather, for sure.
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Chinese toddler disables mom’s iPhone for 47 years • CNBC

Kristin Huang:

»

A two-year-old boy in Shanghai disabled his mother’s iPhone for the equivalent of 47 years after playing with it and repeatedly entering the wrong passcode, according to a Chinese media report.

The incident happened in January after the phone was given to the child to watch educational videos online, the news website Kankanews.com said.

The mother returned home one day and when she checked the phone found it had been disabled for 25 million minutes by pressing keys repeatedly when the handset requested the passcode be inputted, according to the article. Each time the wrong keys were pressed the phone was disabled for a period of time, the report said.

«

“These phones are too secure.”
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YouTube tech reviewer Marques Brownlee is the most famous person you wouldn’t recognize in public • Recode

Eric Johnson:

»

Marques Brownlee likes the fact that he still has a bit of anonymity — despite having more than six million subscribers on YouTube and more than 2.75 million followers on Twitter, he can go almost anywhere without people accosting him in public.

“That’s the beauty of the internet,” Brownlee said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “A lot of people who are on the internet most of the time aren’t in the street most of the time. So, I can just walk down the street and no one knows.”

But when he goes to tech conferences like CES, he gets bombarded with attention. Although making YouTube videos started as a hobby, his channel MKBHD’s massive reach has caused the tech giants to take notice: When the Samsungs and Apples of the world have a new phone coming out, Brownlee is one of the people invited to those products’ unveilings, in the hope that he’ll make a video about the new product that will attract millions of views.

“We’re at a point in 2018 where pretty much every company recognizes, there’s eyeballs on YouTube,” he said. “If you want to reach them, you’ve got to have some sort of relationship and work with the creators.”

«

First video release: 2009, aged 15. Brownlee is one of the very few YouTubers who Apple chooses to review new products. He has become unavoidable; though I doubt he would know what the magic formula was. (The podcast with him is on the page.)
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Traditional PC market exceeds expectations with flat year-on-year shipment growth • IDC

»

Worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook, and workstation) totaled 60.4m units and recorded flat (0.0%) year-on-year growth in the first quarter of 2018 (1Q18), according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. The results exceeded the earlier forecast of a 1.5% decline and marks the third consecutive quarter where traditional PC shipment volume has hovered around flat growth year on year.

Although the numbers are preliminary, the data seems to indicate a continued build up in commercial renewal activity as the main driver for the stabilizing trend. Business uptake of Windows 10 systems appear to be steadily ongoing, benefitting commercially-focused PC OEMs such as HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Demand for premium notebooks in both the consumer and commercial segments have also helped major vendors retain better margins and garner buyer interest. Furthermore, continued focus on gaming systems has injected slight improvement in pockets of the consumer space. Unlike the first quarter of 2017, an improved supply of key notebook components also loosened pressures on both supply and pricing, leading to some recovery of share for the smaller vendors.

«

The Gartner data is gloomier – a fall of 1.4%, though to a higher total of 61.69m units. The confusing thing is that Gartner excludes Chromebooks, but IDC includes them; but Chromebook sales would probably explain how IDC sees sales as static while Gartner sees them falling.

Either way, the PC market is a long way down; in 1Q 2012 IDC’s figures were showed shipments of 88m. Somewhere, 28m sales got lost.
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How Android phones hide missed security updates from you • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

»

Security Research Labs (SRL) tested the firmware of 1,200 phones, from more than a dozen phone manufacturers, for every Android patch released in 2017. The devices were made by Google itself as well as major Android phone makers like Samsung, Motorola, and HTC, and lesser-known Chinese-owned companies like ZTE and TCL. Their testing found that other than Google’s own flagship phones like the Pixel and Pixel 2, even top-tier phone vendors sometimes claimed to have patches installed that they actually lacked. And the lower-tier collection of manufacturers had a far messier record.

The problem, Nohl points out, is worse than vendors merely neglecting to patch older devices, a common phenomenon. Instead, it’s that they tell users they install patches that they in fact don’t, creating a false sense of security. “We found several vendors that didn’t install a single patch but changed the patch date forward by several months,” Nohl says. “That’s deliberate deception, and it’s not very common.”

More often, Nohl believes, companies like Sony or Samsung would miss a patch or two by accident. But in other cases, the results were harder to explain: SRL found that one Samsung phone, the 2016 J5, was perfectly honest about telling the user which patches it had installed and which it still lacked, while Samsung’s 2016 J3 claimed to have every Android patch issued in 2017 but lacked 12 of them—two considered as “critical” for the phone’s security.

«

Chinese companies (including Lenovo’s Motorola), and HTC and LG figure badly here. How big a problem is this, though? Are these hacks exploitable? The rest of the article suggests not. But it’s poor customer relations to do this.
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California bill could introduce a constitutionally questionable ‘right to be forgotten’ in the US • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

here in California, Assemblymember Mark Levine has introduced a local version of the [EU’s data protection regulation] GDPR, called the California Data Protection Authority, which includes two key components: a form of a right to be forgotten and a plan for regulations “to prohibit edge provider Internet Web sites from conducting potentially harmful experiments on nonconsenting users.” If you’re just looking from the outside, both of these might sound good as a first pass. Giving end users more control over their data? Sounds good. Preventing evil websites from conducting “potentially harmful experiments”? Uh, yeah, sounds good.

But, the reality is that both of these ideas, as written, seem incredibly broad and could create all sorts of new problems. First, on the right to be forgotten aspect, the language is painfully vague:

»

It is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that personal information can be removed from the database of an edge provider, defined as any individual or entity in California that provides any content, application, or service over the Internet, and any individual or entity in California that provides a device used for accessing any content, application, or service over the Internet, when a user chooses not to continue to be a customer of that edge provider.

«

Any content? Any application? At least the bill does limit “personal information” to a limited category of topics, so we’re not just talking about “embarrassing” information, a la the EU’s interpretation of the right to be forgotten. But “personal information” is still somewhat vague. It does include “medical information” which is further defined as “any individually identifiable information, in electronic or physical form, regarding the individual’s medical history or medical treatment or diagnosis by a health care professional.” So, would that mean that if we wrote about SF Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, and the fact that his broken pinky required pins and he won’t be able to pitch for a few weeks… we’d be required to take that information down if he requested it? That seems like a pretty serious First Amendment problem.

«

The “right to be forgotten” clashes fundamentally with the US’s First Amendment. But the GDPR doesn’t have to, if it’s about the initial control of data. The clash comes once the data has become “public”.

link to this extract


What does the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation mean for open blockchain networks? • Coin Center

Neeraj Agrawal, at “the leading non-profit research and advocacy centre focused on the public policy issues facing cryptocurrency”:

»

As provocative as it may be to European regulators, the better conception may be to see the new law as incompatible with the reality of open blockchain networks. That is to say, the GDPR presumes that there will be central intermediaries that can ‘erase’ information, but the world is trending toward ever more decentralized and immutable technologies. While firms may alter their behavior to comply with the new law, decentralized networks are global and unowned and won’t change. The result of the law, then, may be that Europe is closing itself off from the future of the Internet to its detriment.

That said, we’re optimistic that our European friends will come to see that their legitimate privacy concerns are best addressed not through law, but through decentralizing technology itself.

«

Yeah, I’m sure that 27 countries which have worked for years on a data protection regime being considered as a framework for US data protection will ditch it in order to help a technology whose benefits remain unproven beyond validating software archiving. (Bitcoin is unproven too so far.)
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Zuck’s part 2, adblocking politics, how YouTube creates human clickbait, China’s AR challenge, and more


Dots: Netflix can’t see them in email, Gmail can. Bad news. Photo by Leon Lee on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Augment that reality. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Zuckerberg denies knowledge of Facebook shadow profiles • TechCrunch

Taylor Hatmaker:

»

Commerce Committee, New Mexico Representative Ben Lujan cornered Mark Zuckerberg with a question about so-called “shadow profiles” — the term often used to refer to the data that Facebook collects on non-users and other hidden data that Facebook holds but does not offer openly on the site for users to see.

In one of the handful of slightly candid moments of the past few days, Rep. Lujan pressed Zuckerberg on the practice today:

Lujan: Facebook has detailed profiles on people who have never signed up for Facebook, yes or no?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, in general we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes to prevent the kind of scraping you were just referring to [reverse searches based on public info like phone numbers].

Lujan: So these are called shadow profiles, is that what they’ve been referred to by some?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not, I’m not familiar with that.

«

Lujan really takes Zuckerberg to task. It’s quite a thing to see. The House of Representatives, despite the funding they get from Facebook, were much tougher than the Senate; partly because they’re younger, but also had wider experience – including one with a computer science degree (which is more than Zuck has).
link to this extract


Bitcoin would be a calamity, not an economy • MIT Technology Review

James Surowiecki:

»

The problem with a world in which there are lots of different private currencies is that it massively increases transaction costs. With a single, government-issued currency that’s legal tender, you don’t have to think about whether or not to accept it in exchange for goods and services. You accept dollars because you know that you will be able to use them to buy whatever you want. Commerce flows more smoothly because everyone has implicitly agreed to use the dollar.

In an economy with lots of competing currencies (particularly cryptocurrencies unbacked by any commodity), it would work very differently. If someone wants to pay you in Litecoin, you have to figure out whether you think Litecoin is a real cryptocurrency or just a scam that could shut down any day now. You have to consider who else might accept Litecoin if you want to spend it, or who would trade you dollars for it (and at what exchange rate and transaction fee). Basically, a proliferation of currencies tosses sand into the gears of commerce, making transactions less efficient and more costly. And any currency that is hard to use is less valuable as a medium of exchange.

This isn’t speculative. we actually have a historical example of how this works. In the United States in the decades before the Civil War, there was no national currency. Instead, it was an era of what was called “free banking.” Individual banks issued bank notes, theoretically backed by gold, that people used as money. The problem was that the farther away from a bank you got, the less recognizable (and therefore the less trustworthy) a bank’s note was to people. And every time you did a deal, you had to vet the note to make sure it was worth what your trading partner said it was worth. So-called wildcat banks sprang up, took people’s money, issued a host of notes, and then shut down, making their notes worthless. To be sure, people came up with workarounds—there were volumes that were a kind of Yelp for banking, displaying the panoply of bank notes and rating them for reliability and value. But the broader consequence was that doing business was simply more complicated and slower than it otherwise would have been. The same will be true in a world where some people use Ethereum, others use Litecoin, and others use Ripple.

«

link to this extract


Tesla issues strongest statement yet blaming driver for deadly crash • abc7news.com

Dan Noyes on the latest regarding Walter Huang, who died when his Tesla, on Autopilot, drove into a crash barrier:

»

Tesla sent [ABC News] a statement Tuesday night that reads in part, “Autopilot requires the driver to be alert and have hands on the wheel… the crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road.”

“We know that he’s not the type who would not have his hands on the steering wheel, he’s always been (a) really careful driver,” said [Walter Huang’s brother] Will.

The family’s lawyer believes Tesla is blaming Huang to distract from the family’s concern about the car’s Autopilot.

“Its sensors misread the painted lane lines on the road and its braking system failed to detect a stationary object ahead,” said lawyer Mike Fong.

You can already see the arguments forming for the lawsuit.

«

If Huang had driven down the road before in the same car in the same way, Tesla will have records. If this happened after a software update, it’s Tesla’s fault: Huang would have had a reasonable expectation that the car would (as previously) avoid the obstacle. (Recall the videos of how this could happen from a few days ago.)
link to this extract


Your Facebook data is only worth $5.20 on the dark web – MarketWatch

Maria LaMagna:

»

Whether or not you were impacted by the Cambridge Analytica incident, there’s a depressing aspect of many recent privacy violations: The most important parts of your identity can be sold online for just a few dollars.

Consumers have to spend hours of their time — and, sometimes, their own money — when they find out their driver’s license, Facebook “likes” or Social Security number have been exposed to hackers. But those who sell them are making only petty cash.

That’s according to a new report from the content marketing agency Fractl, which analyzed all the fraud-related listings on three large “dark web” marketplaces — Dream, Point and Wall Street Market — over several days last month.

The “dark web” is part of the internet that people can only access by using special software. To create this report, Fractl accessed the dark web through the browser Tor. People buy other risky or illegal substances on the dark web, including drugs, pirated content like movies or music and materials that help with scams, including credit-card “skimmers.”

Facebook logins can be sold for $5.20 each because they allow criminals to have access to personal data that could potentially let them hack into more of an individual’s accounts. The credentials to a PayPal account with a relatively high balance can be sold on the dark web for $247 on average, the report found.

«

link to this extract


The dots do matter: how to scam a Gmail user • James Fisher

Fisher got a valid email from Netflix saying it was having trouble with his credit card payment. He was going to update it – but the credit card it had didn’t match his own. What gives?

»

I finally realized that this email is to james.hfisher@gmail.com. I normally use jameshfisher@gmail.com, with no dots. You might think this email should have bounced, but instead it reached my inbox, because “dots don’t matter in Gmail addresses”:

If someone accidentally adds dots to your address when emailing you, you’ll still get that email. For example, if your email is johnsmith@gmail.com, you own all dotted versions of your address:

john.smith@gmail.com
jo.hn.sm.ith@gmail.com
j.o.h.n.s.m.i.t.h@gmail.com

Netflix does not know about this Gmail “feature”. Externally, jameshfisher@gmail.com and james.hfisher@gmail.com are different identities, and should have their own Netflix accounts. I signed up for Netflix account N1 backed by jameshfisher@gmail.com in 2013. But in September 2017, someone, let’s call her “Eve”, created a new Netflix account N2, backed by james.hfisher@gmail.com.

Eve has access to account N2 because she set its password when signing up, but I also have access to the account because I own james.hfisher@gmail.com, and so I can follow the password reset process for this account. I did so.

Eve loves her TV! She’s watched 587 titles in six months, all from her “Android Device” in Alabama. She watched three seasons of Trailer Park Boys over a single day in October. She consumed nearly every day until 22nd March, when Netflix put her account “on hold” due to payment failure. Eve had paid for these shows. She paid $13.99 every month for her Premium plan, until February when her card **** 2745 (also billed to Huntsville, Alabama) was declined.

Perhaps this was all a mistake? Perhaps Eve is actually one of the twelve James Fishers in Huntsville, AL, and perhaps he typed his email address in wrong when he signed up months ago. Netflix doesn’t do any email address verification when you sign up; you can start watching shows straight away.

But perhaps this was not a mistake but a scam. I was almost fooled into perpetually paying for Eve’s Netflix access, and only paused because I didn’t recognize the declined card.

«

Google is proud of this “feature”, but like Fisher, I think it’s a bug. I get tons of scam emails like this.
link to this extract


Trump’s company is suing towns across the country to get breaks on taxes • ProPublica

Katherine Sullivan:

»

Since becoming president, Trump’s companies have filed at least nine new lawsuits against municipalities in Florida, New York and Illinois, arguing for lower tax bills, ProPublica has found. Some of those lawsuits have been previously reported. At stake is millions of dollars that communities use to fund roads, schools and police departments.

Real estate owners dispute property taxes frequently, and some even sue. The president has a long track record of doing so himself. But experts are troubled that he’s doing so while in office.

No president in modern times has owned a business involved in legal battles with local governments. “The idea that the president would have these interests and then those companies would sue localities is really a dangerous precedent,” says Larry Noble, of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. The dynamic between local and federal governments is impossible to ignore in these cases, says Noble. Municipalities “rely on resources from the federal government and the federal government can make your life easier or much more difficult.” The concern arises because the president did not fully separate from his businesses, he says.

A spokesman for the Trump Organization said, “Like any other business or property owner when property taxes become inflated it is not uncommon to challenge the process to ensure fair treatment. This is a routine practice and any suggestion otherwise is simply ridiculous.”

«

And also obvious. What happens when the president doesn’t disentangle himself from his companies.
link to this extract


One woman got Facebook to police opioid sales on Instagram • WIRED

Nitasha Tiku:

»

Eileen Carey says she has regularly reported Instagram accounts selling opioids to the company for three years, with few results. Last week, Carey confronted two executives of Facebook, which owns Instagram, about the issue on Twitter. Since then, Instagram removed some accounts, banned one opioid-related hashtag and restricted the results for others.

Searches for the hashtag #oxycontin on Instagram now show no results. Other opioid-related hashtags, such as #opiates, #fentanyl, and #narcos, surface a limited number of results along with a message stating, “Recent posts from [the hashtag] are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Some accounts that appeared to be selling opioids on Instagram also were removed.

The moves come amid increased government concern about the role of tech platforms in opioid abuse, and follow years of media reports about the illegal sale of opioids on Instagram and Facebook, from the BBC, Venturebeat, CNBC, Sky News and others. Following the BBC probe in 2013, Instagram blocked searches of terms associated with the sale of illegal drugs.

«

Zuckerberg was asked about opioid adverts on Facebook by the House of Representatives committee; he said (paraphrased) they couldn’t do much and that they’d have to wait for better AI.
link to this extract


Ad blocking as a radical political act • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden:

»

Aside from unavoidable billboards and the occasional magazine, I just don’t see advertising any more. I’m not sure why any sane person would want to.

Even when I worked in the mobile ad industry, I blocked ads. Everyone did. The first thing that the IT helpdesk said to people who complained that they couldn’t log into their work email was “yeah mate, you need to turn your ad-blocker off…”

I’ve been blocking Facebook adverts since before it was fashionable. As a result, I’m bemused by the claims that my information has been microtargetted and used to manipulate me.

I thought it was common knowledge that you could set your Facebook preferences to block creepy use of your data for advertising purposes. Even if you didn’t want to block adverts, why wouldn’t you do that?

Perhaps Facebook themselves have been subtly manipulating what stories they choose to show me. Perhaps my friends are activated Manchurian Candidates swamping me with fake news. Or perhaps I just block the obviously dodgy news sources and unfriend anyone daft enough to share them.
Perhaps we need a word to describe the people who willingly watch adverts? The technology to block them is simple to use, and information about blocking is widely disseminated.

People who watch adverts are like anti-vaxxers – blissfully unaware of the benefits of herd-immunity.

«

Advertisers (and a lot of publishers) see it quite the other way round, of course.
link to this extract


China is catching up to Apple in AR, says KGI Securities’ Ming-Chi Kuo • Business Insider

Kif Leswing:

»

The most-closely followed Apple analyst warned in a Wednesday note that Chinese smartphone companies are rapidly catching up to Apple in augmented reality technology, which CEO Tim Cook has called “profound” and a “core technology” for the company going forward. 

The example Ming-Chi Kuo provides is a Tencent game called Honour of Kings, which will release an augmented reality version in May. It’s a big game, with over 200 million players worldwide.

It’s also a much more advanced augmented reality experience than Pokemon Go, he writes, and uses algorithms from $3bn artificial intelligence startup SenseTime.

“Apple’s first-mover lead in AR eroded by OPPO,” reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo at KGI Securities wrote.

Apple launched ARKit last summer, which easily allows developers to make rich experiences where computer models interact with surfaces in the real world. Apple was the first major technology company to announce software like that, and had a chance to capture the entire development market. 

“However, since the debut of the ARKit nearly a year ago, there has been no heavyweight AR application on iOS,” Kuo wrote. 

Which is why he believes Apple should be concerned that it’s launching on Oppo phones running Android at the same time as iOS, on less-advanced hardware.

«

SenseTime again. However, I think that AR’s struggles (Pokemon Go aside) are going to remain the same: is it as engaging to have a virtual object in the real world as it is to have a virtual object in a virtual world that you control more precisely?
link to this extract


Your pretty face is going to sell • Open Space at SF MOMA

Joe Veix on the peculiar phenomenon of “YouTube Face” (YTF) – the strange, overplayed expressions that you see people adopting on videos in order to make arresting preview frames for the time when they’re in the “up next” lineup and want to be chosen, oh please choose me, for the next click:

»

Getting attention on social media platforms requires creating content designed to perform well within their ecosystems. Everything must contort to please the almighty Algorithmic Gods. It requires some guesswork, as these algorithms exist at such an ever-increasing scale and complexity that even their creators don’t — can’t — understand them. The Algorithm Gods work in mysterious ways.

This has odd and often unexpected effects on the physical world. Restaurants attempt to create Instagram-friendly environments with nauseatingly kitschy interior designs. Hamburger buns are glazed to make them more aesthetically appealing. Extremist political campaigns are won partially on the strength of their shitposting. Perhaps the emergence of YTF hints at one of the many ways these algorithmic forces might begin to shape our physical appearances.

We’re also witnessing tactics common to the advertising industry, especially those of late-night infomercials, being utilized autonomously by individuals. People simulate the behavior of corporate brands, while corporate brands simulate people, hiring teams of flacks to help make something like, I don’t know, fracking seem “authentic” and “cool.”

So begins the Great Brand Singularity. Corporations, humans, and machines merging in a banal orgy of commerce. The tech is currently primitive, but it’s easy to imagine scrolling through some future feed and seeing the faces of long-deceased relatives digitally grafted onto advertisements for #FappuccinoHappyHour; close friends suddenly revealed to be replicants working for foam mattress startups; augmented reality Pillsbury Doughboys stalking us on late night walks home, their soft footsteps squishing confidently along.

«

Or as he also says, “YouTube Face is clickbait made human”.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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: Mr Zuckerberg goes to Washington, Theranos circles the drain, the bitcoin infection, and more


It’s not true, at least in the US, and the FTC says so. Photo by Eirik Solheim on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. Do not sell separately. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

FTC says ‘Warranty Void If Removed’ stickers are bullshit, warns manufacturers they’re breaking the law • Motherboard

Matthew Gault:

»

As we’ve reported before, it is bullshit and illegal under federal law for electronics manufacturers to put “Warranty Void if Removed” stickers on their gadgets, and it’s also illegal for companies to void your warranty if you fix your device yourself or via a third party.

The Federal Trade Commission put six companies on notice today, telling them in a warning letter that their warranty practices violate federal law. If you buy a car with a warranty, take it a repair shop to fix it, then have to return the car to the manufacturer, the car company isn’t legally allowed to deny the return because you took your car to another shop. The same is true of any consumer device that costs more than $15, though many manufacturers want you to think otherwise.

Companies such as Sony and Microsoft pepper the edges of their game consoles with warning labels telling customers that breaking the seal voids the warranty. That’s illegal. Thanks to the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, no manufacturer is allowed to put repair restrictions on a device it offers a warranty on. Dozens of companies do it anyway, and the FTC has put them on notice. Apple, meanwhile, routinely tells customers not to use third party repair companies, and aftermarket parts regularly break iPhones due to software updates.

«

I’d like to know what the UK position is on this. Now, just on that last point…
link to this extract


The new iOS update killed touch functionality on iPhone 8s repaired with aftermarket screens • Motherboard

Matthew Gault:

»

“This has caused my company over 2,000 reshipments,” Aakshay Kripalani, CEO of Injured Gadgets, a Georgia-based retailer and repair shop, told me in a Facebook message. “Customers are annoyed and it seems like Apple is doing this to prevent customers from doing 3rd party repair.”

According to [Michael] Oberdick [owner and occupier of iOutlet, based in Ohio, which fixes iPhones etc], every iPhone screen is powered by a small microchip, and that chip is what the repair community believes to be causing the issue. For the past six months, shops have been able to replace busted iPhone 8 screens with no problem, but something in the update killed touch functionality. According to several people I spoke to, third-party screen suppliers have already worked out the issue, but fixing the busted phones means re-opening up the phone and upgrading the chip.

It remains to be seen whether Apple will issue a new software update that will suddenly fix these screens, but that is part of the problem: Many phones repaired by third parties are ticking timebombs; it’s impossible for anyone to know if or when Apple will do something that breaks devices fixed with aftermarket parts.

«

It’s the Error 53 thing, which goes back to February 2016 (though that was about replacing the TouchID button).

One point is that Apple won’t be trying to hobble legitimate third-party screen repairs; people break their phones so much that it can’t be that grasping. Just as with Error 53, there will be some subtle reason around this. The fact to me that the problem can be ended by “upgrading the chip” suggests to me that someone at Apple overlooked that update, and so it hasn’t been applied, but the rest of the system needs it. Hanlon’s Law at work. (If this applied to the iPhone 7 or others too, then it would be a conspiracy against third-party repairs; the fact it’s only the iPhone 8 – not 8 Plus? Not earlier? – suggests to me that’s the problem.)
link to this extract


Zuckerberg faces day of reckoning as Congress threatens Facebook with regulation • The Guardian

David Smith:

»

Looking pale and tense, the 33-year-old billionaire, who has enjoyed a career of unalloyed success, sat humbled and silent as senator after senator expressed deep concerns about the company’s mishandling of users’ personal information.

“Let me just cut to the chase,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, before Zuckerberg started giving evidence. “If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy any more. If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix the privacy invasions, then we are going to have to. We, the Congress.”

Senator John Thune, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, noted that Facebook’s business model offers free service in exchange for personal data. “For this model to persist, both sides of the bargain need to know what’s involved,” he said. “I’m not convinced Facebook’s users have the information they need to make decisions.”

He told Zuckerberg that to many he embodies the American dream, but that could become “a privacy nightmare for the scores of people who used Facebook”.

In a calm and steady voice, Zuckerberg read from a prepared statement first released on Monday. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he said. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Then, under questioning, he promised that Facebook is conducting a “full investigation” into every app that has access to users’ information, numbering tens of thousands. “If we find they’re doing anything improper, we’ll ban them from Facebook,” he said.

«

Not sure that we expected much from Zuckerberg; it’s the politicians who have to act now.

link to this extract


Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to testify before House and Senate panels that got Facebook money • USA Today

Herb Jackson:

»

The congressional panel that got the most Facebook contributions is the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which announced Wednesday morning it would question Zuckerberg on April 11.

Members of the committee, whose jurisdiction gives it regulatory power over Internet companies, received nearly $381,000 in contributions tied to Facebook since 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center is a non-partisan, non-profit group that compiles and analyzes disclosures made to the Federal Election Commission.

The second-highest total, $369,000, went to members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced later that it would have a joint hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee to question Zuckerberg on Tuesday. Judiciary Committee members have received $235,000 in Facebook contributions.

On the House committee, Republicans got roughly twice as much as Democrats, counter to the broader trend in Facebook campaign gifts. Of the $7m in contributions to all federal candidates tied to the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social network, Democrats got 65% to Republicans’ 33%.

«

American politics.
link to this extract


Facebook may stop the data leaks, but it’s too late: Cambridge Analytica’s models live on • MIT Technology Review

Jacob Metcalf:

»

There has been plenty of skeptical analysis of just how useful SCL’s psychographic tools were. In contrast to Nix’s flamboyant salesmanship of the method, critics have routinely responded by calling it snake oil. Where Cambridge Analytica was hired to run digital campaigns, it bungled some basic operations (especially for Ted Cruz, whose website it failed to launch on time). And SCL staff often rubbed others working on Trump’s digital campaign the wrong way.

The models may have helped in constructing Trump’s lose-the-electorate, win-the-electoral-college strategy.

However, none of Cambridge Analytica’s many Republican critics has yet said its models were not useful. Moreover, some reporting indicates that the models were used primarily to target voters in swing states and to hone Trump’s stump speeches in those states. That shows that the campaign understood that these models are most useful when applied in a focused manner. They may have helped in constructing Trump’s lose-the-electorate, win-the-electoral-college strategy.

And while they have their limitations, behavioral profiles are very good at estimating demographics, including political leanings, gender, location, and ethnicity. A behavioral profile of seemingly innocuous “likes” paired with other data sets is both a good-enough map to far more information about a potential voter, and a way to predict what types of content they might find engaging.

Ultimately, then, if we strip out the context of the 2016 election and the odd correlations that these algorithms find in Facebook behavioral data, the role that psychometrics plays is actually fairly straightforward: it is another criterion among many by which to create tranches of voters and learn from iterative feedback about how those tranches respond to ads.

«

link to this extract


Theranos lays off most of its remaining workforce • WSJ

John Carreyrou (who wrote the original blockbuster story that began Theranos’s downfall):

»

Blood-testing firm Theranos Inc. laid off most of its remaining workforce in a last-ditch effort to preserve cash and avert or at least delay bankruptcy for a few more months, according to people familiar with the matter.

The layoffs take the company’s head count from about 125 employees to two dozen or fewer, according to people familiar with the matter. As recently as late 2015, Theranos had about 800 employees.

Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley firm’s founder and chief executive officer, announced the layoffs at an all-employee a meeting at Theranos’s offices in Newark, Calif. on Tuesday, less than a month after settling civil fraud charges with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Under the SEC settlement, Ms. Holmes was forced to relinquish her voting control over the company she founded 15 years ago as a 19-year-old Stanford dropout, give back a big chunk of her stock, and pay a $500,000 penalty. She also agreed to be barred from being an officer or director in a public company for 10 years.

«

So close, so close, to its final status as a footnote in VC history.
link to this extract


Alibaba invests in Chinese facial-recognition startup • WSJ

Liza Lin:

»

Alibaba’s share in the $600m Series C funding round wasn’t disclosed. Other investors include Singapore state investment company Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd. and Chinese electronics retailer Suning.com Co.

Founded in 2014, SenseTime is among a handful of Chinese AI startups that got their start selling facial-recognition systems to local police agencies. With a vast network of surveillance cameras, China is using facial recognition to identify criminal suspects as well as to influence behavior, such as discouraging jaywalking.

The technology also has commercial applications, with some companies now using it instead of badges to grant employees access to their workplaces. Mr. Xu said SenseTime would use the new funding to focus on expanding the technology’s commercial applications and AI capabilities.

SenseTime is also developing algorithms for autonomous driving, as a partner with Honda Motor Co. , and is working with Shanghai’s government to use AI to ease traffic congestion.

«

SenseTime is quite creepy: the way the Chinese government is using it to monitor people in real time is really freaky.
link to this extract


YouTube fake news rampant in Korea • Korea Times

Jung Min-ho:

»

“Samsung is behind the recent #MeToo allegations brought up against comedian Kim Saeng-min,” is one of many fake stories ― or “news” ― on YouTube, but the video-sharing website has taken no action to resolve the issue here.

From political conspiracies to false scientific knowledge, YouTube is becoming home to fake news and wrong information about almost everything. And naive teenagers are not the only consumers of such information.

After An Hee-jung offered to resign as South Chungcheong Province governor over rape accusations a month ago, Hong Joon-pyo, leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said he heard that presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok “plotted” to remove his political rival ― fake news that was then being widely shared among conservative voters.

Video clips about the fake plot can still be found on YouTube.

So far, neither the Korean government nor the American company has tackled the problem properly. Given that more people here use YouTube as a search engine for everything, this could seriously hinder them from getting the right information ― a precondition for a healthy democracy.

«

Just in case you thought it was a western-only thing.
link to this extract


Bitcoin’s soaring value was down to ‘infected’ buyers, economists say • The Guardian

Richard Partington:

»

Analysts at Barclays said the soaring value of the digital currency last year, when prices rose by more than 900%, was helped by new buyers being “infected” by the euphoria surrounding bitcoin. The price has since crashed from almost $20,000 before Christmas to less than $7,000.

Using studies from the world of epidemiology – the branch of medicine concerned with the occurrence, distribution and control of epidemic diseases – the bank’s economists built a model for bitcoin prices that assumed more people were now “immune” to the lure of making money on the new financial asset.

They said prices tend to rise when “infections” spread from one buyer to another, transmitted by word-of-mouth between friends – especially to those with a “fear of missing out” on a chance to get rich quick. The rate of new entrants to the market helps to set prices, while more people losing money will lead to immunity.

Arguing that the “susceptible” population for the bitcoin bug has now fallen, the economists said the peak reached just before Christmas was probably the ultimate price that could ever be achieved for the digital currency.

“This occurs with infectious diseases when the immunity threshold is reached; ie, the point at which a sufficient portion of the population becomes immune such that there are no more secondary infections,” the economists said.

Using that logic and applying it to the plethora of other digital currencies, including the peers of bitcoin such as ethereum and ripple, Barclays said the overall value for all crypto assets may never surpass $780bn – roughly equivalent to the peak sum of all cryptocurrencies in early January.

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Makes sense. Though that’s a lot of spare change that people found to put into cryptojunk. I wonder how all the “hodlers” (cryptocurrency fans) will feel about being represented essentially as extras in The Walking Dead? Hmm, I’m sure they’ll be just fine with it.
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Apple now runs on 100% green energy, and here’s how it got there • Fast Company

Mark Sullivan:

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The closer Apple got to its 100% goal, the more the effort centered on some of its smallest, most remote offices and retail stores around the world to 100%. Over the past year, the company has been busy locating and signing power purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy projects in places like Brazil, India, Israel, Mexico, and Turkey. The hardest part was finding renewable energy projects small enough to serve the limited power needs of operations such as tiny sales offices.

Earlier on, however, the company was able to get most of the way to 100% in big chunks. It did so by locating or creating renewable energy sources for the power-hungry data centers it was building as services such as Siri, iCloud, and Apple Music became increasingly key to its future. Apple now has data centers in Maiden, North Carolina; Reno, Nevada; Mesa, Arizona; Newark, California, and Prineville, Oregon. The company has announced plans for another data center in Waukee, Iowa, as well as one in Ireland, two in Denmark, and two in China.

These sprawling facilities require a lot of power to keep their thousands of servers humming along in their quiet corridors, and more power to keep them all cool. Before it began building any data centers, Apple made the decision that it would run them on renewable energy.

With its $285bn in cash reserves, Apple certainly has enough money to simply buy up existing green power to get to the 100% goal. But one of the strict standards which Jackson says Apple follows is something called “additionality,” or a preference for sponsoring the creation of new renewable power sources. “We want to put new, clean power on the grid so that we’re not sucking up all the clean energy that’s there,” she says.

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It’s actually complicated: solar farms don’t work at night, so you need a green power source for that time. That means you need a renewable energy certificate (REC), which you buy. You can see how that can get messy.
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Touchless Control and the lessons of history • Ken Segall

Segall (an ex-Appler, some time back) notes that Apple doesn’t always progress perfectly:

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It was in the third-generation iPod that Apple “improved” itself into a bit of a mess. What better way to streamline this thing, went Apple’s thinking, than by making the Control buttons (menu, play, next, previous) work by touch also?

It sounded good on paper and it demo’ed nicely, but it also made this super-lovable device less significantly less lovable. Touch on the Click Wheel required one to slide a finger. Touch on the control buttons required only a touch—even if that touch was ever so slight and unintentional.

It could be infuriating, especially if you reached for the iPod while driving and kept your eyes on the road. You’d end up skipping songs by accident.

It was one of those steps forward that was quickly seen as a step backward—even by Apple. One year later, new iPods eliminated the separate touch controls, re-integrating them into the Scroll Wheel and requiring a push instead of a touch. Apple would never deviate from this design again.

Which brings me to last week’s iPhone rumors [of a curved screen and “touchless” control]. On the surface, the idea of Touchless Control sounds intriguing. For certain functions, there would be no need to even touch the screen—simply bringing one’s finger close to the screen would be enough to initiate an action.

You can see why this idea brought back memories of the touch-control iPod. Making devices easier to use is and should be the never-ending quest, but Apple must never lose perspective.

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When slickness trumps functionality, the natives get restless.
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AI will cut huge chunks out of banking compliance workforce and London high streets might die • Computer Weekly

Karl Flinders:

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behind the scenes AI is increasingly being used to carry out important work in the background helping banks comply with regulations. When AI replaces people in compliance we could really see huge job cuts and cost savings for banks.

This takes me to an article I wrote yesterday about HSBC using software from a big data startup, which includes AI, to help it automate the monitoring of transactions to flush out money laundering. An example of how AI can replace compliance resources.

Lowering costs is becoming more and more important amid the fintech revolution.

At the recent Innovate Finance Global Summit in London Anne Boden, CEO at challenger bank Starling said the big battle in banking involves the cost base rather than innovation. All traditional banks can innovate. They have huge budgets so there is nothing stopping them creating the same fintech services as challengers. They are already doing it. But rather than having hundreds of staff they have tens of thousands. As a result the new players have a huge advantage in terms of cost base.

When John Cryan, who was sacked as CEO at Deutsche bank, said last year that AI will take over a large number of jobs at Deutsche Bank he was probably thinking about all those compliance bods.

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Flinders argues that those compliance bods are the ones who keep the high street going, because they buy coffee and so on. I’m not convinced about that; and I think that compliance will find a way to grow, even with AI – or especially with AI. Just because you think you’ve identified money laundering doesn’t mean you have.
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