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


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


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


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

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

Parmy Olson:

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

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

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

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

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


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

Lucas Matney:

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

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

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

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A rare win for the good old reverse chronological there, but only if people discover the magic button.
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Influencers are faking brand deals • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:

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

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

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

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

Stinson Carter:

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

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

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

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

But notice: YouTube isn’t in there as a “channel” that people watch on a TV, as far as I can tell.
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Iranian phishers bypass 2FA protections offered by Yahoo Mail and Gmail • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey Tucker:

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

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

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

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

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From February, but nothing’s changed. The sugar tariff was first imposed in 1816 to protect plantations (with slaves) in Louisiana. Still going strong 200 years later.
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Who will be in control of your home this Christmas? • Kantar Worldpanel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Faber:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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link to this extract


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


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


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


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

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

Brian Merchant:

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

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

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

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

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There isn’t a great deal that’s new here (apart from his efforts to get Tesla to explain its thinking on autonomous driving), but gathering it in one place is quite startling.
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Google’s secret China project “effectively ended” after fight • The Intercept

Ryan Gallagher:

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

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

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

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There’s some doubt, even among those who pushed against this, whether Google really has shut it down. Wait and see.
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Uncovering what your phone knows • The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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Remove Background from Image • remove.bg

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

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

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

Pretty good, if you have a need for cutouts.
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We broke into a bunch of Android phones with a 3D-printed head • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You might think America has done pretty well at dividing itself over the past 20 years. And you’d be right. The report is highly recommended.
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How Britain grapples with nationalist dark web • POLITICO

Tom McTague:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Masnick:

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When pushing for FOSTA, Kristof wrote the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In its way, almost exactly the same mistake as with the famous “napalm girl” in 2016. That one involved the Norwegian prime minister. Facebook’s systems haven’t improved since then.
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Central Londoners to be subjected to facial recognition test this week • Ars Technica

Cyrus Farivar:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

A selection of 11 links for you. How’s the shopping going? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

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

»

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

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

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

Let’s try it!

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


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

Tim Anderson:

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

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

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

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

«

As the post shows, it’s odd how you only see how the dominoes are lined up in retrospect.
link to this extract


Taxi app warned women to take ‘prudence’ and ‘share ride details with family’ • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

«

Might change their tune soon.
link to this extract


Faraday Future CEO’s long trail of debt is finally catching up to him • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

»

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

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

«

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

link to this extract


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

Valentina Palladino:

»

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

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

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

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

«

The lack of Wi-Fi helps explain the long battery life – but also means you don’t get alerts when out of your phone’s Bluetooth range. But her key complaint is that you can’t get other exercise apps, such as RunKeeper and so on. That’s unlikely to change.
link to this extract


What comes next in that contested election in North Carolina • FiveThirtyEight

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

»

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

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

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

«

The key part of this story is that the apparent fraud was picked up by statistics: the numbers from different areas didn’t tally with those in Bladen, which was a wild outlier. Data exposes lies as well as truths.
link to this extract


Why YouTube’s biggest star can’t be cancelled • NY Mag

Max Read:

»

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


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

Timothy Lee:

»

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

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

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

«

Probably won’t be that easy; Qualcomm likely feels it’s finally found some winning ground.
link to this extract


Garmin sets eyes on medical wearables with its latest partnership • Wareable

Hugh Langley:

»

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

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

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


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

Ryan Broderick and Jules Darmanin:

»

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

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

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

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

«

Facebook is now so powerful that little tweaks to its Newsfeed can destabilise countries by conjoining all the most crazy conspiracy theorists. Happy holidays, everyone!
link to this extract


New Bluetooth tech could make AirPod clones much better • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

»

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

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

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

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

«

Expect it will be bidding hard at CES to find them, or announce them. It’s only a few weeks away.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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


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


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


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

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

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

Gillian Brockell:

»

Dear Tech Companies:

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

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

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

«

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

A long way down though; what we truly want is systems that do watch and are attentive to us – including the bad part.
link to this extract


Smarter voice assistants recognize your favorite brands—and health • Communications of the ACM

»

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

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

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

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

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

«

“The sounds that brands make when they are used”? The advertising-oriented mind is so weird.
link to this extract


Apple Music removes ability for artists to post to Connect, posts removed from Artist Pages and For You • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

»

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

«

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


Apple plans new $1bn campus for Austin, Texas • Reuters

Aishwarya Venugopal:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


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

Julia Alexander:

»

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

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

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

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

«

This year’s YouTube Rewind is now the most disliked video in the history of YouTube – 9m dislikes v 2m likes.
link to this extract


‘Russia’s most modern robot’ revealed to be just a person in a suit • The Independent

Andrew Griffin:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Adam Satariano and Elian Peltier:

»

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

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

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

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

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

«

Bonne idée.
link to this extract


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

Sam Levin:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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Facebook didn’t like this, and put out a grumpy response, principally about the advertiser/misinformation point in that latter paragraph.
link to this extract


Word processor inventor Evelyn Berezin has died • Quartz

Corinne Purtill:

»

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

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

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

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

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Not into the Technology Hall of Fame? Those two inventions are basically what keeps the modern world going.
link to this extract


Make the iPad more like the Mac – Medium

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

»

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

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

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

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


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

Stephen Robinson:

»

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

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

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

«

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


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

Shira Ovide:

»

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

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

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

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

«

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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


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


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


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

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

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

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


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

Israel del Rio:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

«

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

link to this extract


Special effects: can they be special again? • Vulture

Bilge Ebiri:

»

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

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

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

«

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


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

Scott Moritz:

»

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

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

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

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

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

«

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


Apple has dozens of doctors on staff • CNBC

Christina Farr:

»

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

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

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

«

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


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

Paul Kunert:

»

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

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

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

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


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

Erika Kinetz:

»

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

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

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

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

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

«

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


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

»

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

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

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

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

«

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


The end of IBM/Lotus Notes • Web Informant

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

»

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

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

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

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

«

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

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


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

»

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

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

Details? Okay.

Google Chat for Desktop login opens your default browser to login

Sounds reasonable right? Wrong.

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

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

Guess what Google Chat does?

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

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

And this is just the login.

«

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


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

»

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

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

«

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


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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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


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


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


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

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

»

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

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

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

«

Woo-hoo!

»

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

«

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


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

Melissa Locker:

»

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

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

«

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


Why call 999 for an emergency? • BBC

Gary Holland:

»

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

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

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

999 was deemed the sensible choice.

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

«

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


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

Arjun Panchadar:

»

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

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

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

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

«

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


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

Bob O’Donnell:

»

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

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

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

«

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


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

»

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

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

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

«

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


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

Nico Grant:

»

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

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

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

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

«

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

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


Super Micro finds no malicious hardware in motherboards • WSJ

Allison Prang:

»

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

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

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

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

«

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


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

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

»

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

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

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

«

link to this extract


Notice: Google Fusion Tables turndown • Google Support

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

»

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

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

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

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

Google Cloud SQL (…Fully-managed database service)

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

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

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

«

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


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Start Up No.971: more location tracking, Google+ shutting down early, scooters slow down, the crypto cruise crash, and more


Peppa Pig: big, in tattoo form, in China. CC-licensed photo by Cidade do Saber Camaçari on Flickr.


Charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Samaritans, the charity which offers the gift of listening. The organisation receives the most calls during December.


A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t ask for a vote on it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-Devries, Natasha Singer, Michael Keller and Aaron Krolik:

»

More than 1,000 popular apps contain location-sharing code from such companies, according to 2018 data from MightySignal, a mobile analysis firm. Google’s Android system was found to have about 1,200 apps with such code, compared with about 200 on Apple’s iOS.

The most prolific company was Reveal Mobile, based in North Carolina, which had location-gathering code in more than 500 apps, including many that provide local news. A Reveal spokesman said that the popularity of its code showed that it helped app developers make ad money and consumers get free services.

To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”

WeatherBug, owned by GroundTruth, asks users’ permission to collect their location and tells them the information will be used to personalize ads. GroundTruth said that it typically sent the data to ad companies it worked with, but that if they didn’t want the information they could ask to stop receiving it.

«

Is it just me, or does it feel like this story comes around every couple of years? (That’s 2011 in case you don’t want to follow the link, and the first time this was big.)
link to this extract


Google+ to shut down in April after new security flaw found • Financial Times

Richard Waters:

»

Google said it has discovered a new vulnerability in its Google+ social network that could have revealed private data on 52.5m users, just a month after it disclosed an earlier security flaw and announced plans to close down the service.

The new problem was disclosed on Monday, prompting the internet giant to say it will bring forward the date for ending the consumer Google+ service by four months, to April next year.

The company said it had identified the new flaw less than a week after it was introduced, and that it been fixed. There was “no evidence” that any third-party app developers had misused user data as a result of the flaw, it said.

The latest disclosure marks an embarrassing stumble by Google as it tried to plug previous gaps in its privacy protections. It could also hamper its attempts to give Google+ a second life as a collaboration and communication service for workers, after closing down the free consumer version.

«

link to this extract


Investor frenzy for scooter startups cools • WSJ

Eliot Brown, Greg Bensinger and Katie Roof:

»

Scooters barely existed as a business a year ago. But Bird, Lime and others rapidly deployed thousands of them last spring in cities around the U.S. The rides generally rent for $1 to start and 15 cents a minute; customers unlock them with a smartphone and leave the scooters on the sidewalk when they are done.

Investors rushed in after seeing rapid adoption in several California cities. Some companies reported revenue of more than $20 a day for each scooter, suggesting significant profit potential given they cost about $500 apiece.

The economics, though, have proved tougher than expected, people familiar with the companies said.

One issue is scooters not designed for heavy use are breaking down quickly. In some markets, scooters last about two months, investors said, often less time than it takes to recoup the purchase cost. Another is vandalism, glorified on social media through video clips of people knocking over rows of scooters or throwing them off parking garages.

Scoot Networks, a small San Francisco operator of electric Vespa-like scooters, this summer won the right to launch a fleet of as many as 650 scooters there. It hoped to capitalize on the launch of Bird and Lime in the city months earlier. But within two weeks of its October launch, more than 200 scooters had been stolen or vandalized beyond repair, Chief Executive Michael Keating said. That was far more than he had estimated when he got into the business.

“Part of our assumption was that if the theft rate is really, really high and the vandalism rate is really, really high, there is no way these other companies would be in the business,” he said. “That ended up being an underestimate.”

«

link to this extract


I replaced all the computer monitors in my office with ultrawide ones • NY Mag

Mark Cho:

»

I don’t know why more people don’t use ultrawide computer monitors. Maybe they just don’t know about them. Most computer monitors and screens have a width-height ratio of 16:9 (or in the case of MacBooks, 16:10), but ultrawides are 21:9 and sometimes even wider, giving you significantly more real estate on the sides. I’ve been using them almost exclusively since 2015 and am impressed every day by their utility.

Say you had to write a report and needed to reference a website at the same time. Have you ever tried doing that on a regular monitor? How much time do you waste toggling between two windows — or cutting off a third of each to fit both within the screen? An ultrawide lets you use half the screen for a web browser and and the other half for a document with enough space for both.

«

It happens to have recommendations for five ultrawide monitors, but the argument in favour is hard to discount.
link to this extract


Four days trapped at sea with crypto’s nouveau riche • Beakermag

Laurie Penny knows nothing about cryptocurrency, which is why she’s the perfect person to go on an awful cruise in the Mediterranean:

»

My editor tells me Ver is a notorious hulking ego-monster, but my first impression of him is that he is actually very shy. I don’t see him on the dance floors or partying in the poker room. Correlation does not equal causation, and for all I know the guy has been hip-deep in Ukrainian models somewhere offstage the whole time, but I suspect not. I suspect he has been doing what he normally does: having arguments on the internet.

Later on, he takes part in a heated, well-attended showdown debate with star bitcoin maximalist Jimmy Song on the relative merits of bitcoin vs. Bitcoin Cash—the Hatfield-McCoy feud of this self-contained culture. It’s billed as a genteel Lincoln-Douglas style exchange of views. It takes about 10 minutes to become a raging, cringeworthy shitshow. On stage, Ver gets angry and then flustered and petty, demanding to know whether his opponent has ever read Adam Smith cover to cover. It is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live-action Twitter flamewar.

Ver loses the debate by any measure, partly because his brain is permanently set to spreadsheet mode, but mostly because he seems to have forgotten the iron law of performative debate, which also happens to apply to dating: The person who cares most always loses.

Eventually, Song storms off the stage, refusing to participate in what he calls “TMZ-style gotcha politics.” He is replaced by shirtless bitcoin analyst Tone Vays, who waves a water bottle and gamely tries to save the day. All of this is distressing. I get to ask a question.

“I came here to find out about the politics and vision of cryptocurrency,” I say, testing the mic, “so I’m wondering if you can both tell me why I should believe in it having seen what I’ve just seen.”

The question does not compute. Instead both Ver and Vays try to persuade me that their coin is the best to invest in.

«

link to this extract


The ineptitude of Donald Trump’s co-conspirators • The New Yorker

Adam Davidson:

»

Friday night, the office of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and a separate group of federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, laid out evidence that, taken together, leaves little doubt that Donald Trump sought to use his candidacy to enrich himself by approving a plan to curry political favor from Vladimir Putin in exchange for a lucrative real-estate opportunity.

It may be only part of the full story, but what we now know is a powerful tale that combines elements that are familiar from other Trumpworld scandals. It is at once shockingly corrupt, blatantly unethical, probably illegal, and yet, at the same time, shabby, small, and ineptly executed.

Combined with another memo released on Friday—a more sparsely informative sentencing memo for Paul Manafort—we are seeing the inner workings of a coördinated conspiracy conducted by people who are very, very bad at conspiracy.

Consider Manafort. In October, 2017, Manafort was indicted, and it was clear to him and anybody who read the news that his communications would be carefully monitored by the F.B.I. Yet this week’s sentencing memo reveals that Manafort was sending text messages and e-mails through May, 2018, that prove he was in contact with “a senior Administration official” and had “additional contacts with Administration officials.” It is surprising that Manafort decided to use text and e-mail for these contacts, since both are easily traced, and it is even more surprising that anybody in the Administration would communicate with Manafort so openly at a time when he was, quite famously, the most toxic political operative in the world. Recklessly, Manafort chose to lie about these contacts to investigators who had already demonstrated their ability to search his e-mail and text history.

«

And that’s before he gets on to Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. This may all be things you’ve read before, or heard elsewhere, but seeing it crystallised like this reminds you how amazingly corrupt these people were, and are.
link to this extract


SoftBank slams the door on Chinese 5G investment • Nikkei Asian Review

Minoru Satake:

»

SoftBank Group has decided not to use Chinese equipment in its 5G business. The decision comes after the Japanese government compiled a procurement guideline for telecommunications equipment that effectively bans purchases from Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies.

The Japanese technology conglomerate is the only major telecom in the country that uses Huawei and ZTE equipment in its 4G systems, and will determine whether it has to find other makers.

SoftBank’s decision comes amid rising security concerns about Chinese-made equipment. Washington has already banned Huawei and ZTE from the US 5G market, and has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies for their dealings with Iran.

Australia and New Zealand have already banned Chinese makers from building their 5G networks.

Although not citing specific companies, Japan has shut the door on Chinese telecom purchases by central government ministries and its Self-Defense Forces.

Japanese telecoms plan to start testing 5G services next year with the goal of full-scale rollout of commercialized 5G services in 2020.

SoftBank had been partnering with Huawei in 5G trials.

«

OK, so Japan has been carefully cosying up to the US, and wants to keep China at arm’s length; this fits into that. Possibly SoftBank received some visits from Japanese government sources.
link to this extract


UK government spent most on Facebook political advertising • POLITICO

Annabelle Dickson:

»

The UK government was the highest spending political advertiser last week shelling out almost £97,000 on Facebook advertisements seeking support for its deal taking Britain out of the European Union.

The figures published by Facebook on Monday in a new weekly political advertising report also reveal that the ruling Conservative Party spent £40,000 between December 2 and December 8, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May spent £1,659 in the same period.

The People’s Vote — an anti-Brexit campaign group pushing for a fresh referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union — spent more than £47,000.

Pro-Brexit campaign group Britain’s Future, which is opposed to May’s deal, spent almost £21,800.

«

All the government’s spending was wasted money, because the deal wasn’t to be voted on by ordinary voters; it was for the 600-odd MPs in Parliament. Unless there’s some suggestion that only MPs were targeted. (I guess you could, using Facebook’s tools, but I wouldn’t have thought they’d be that expensive – or that the ads would be worthwhile.)

Arguably, this is misspending.
link to this extract


52 things I learned in 2018: Fluxx Studio Notes • Medium

The annually excellent (and surely excellent in between times too) Tom Whitwell; I’ll just pick a few at random:

»

4. 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]
5. Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]
6. In Uganda, half the population is under the age of 15. [Tom Jackson]
7. Peppa Pig tattoos are big in China. [Kenrick Davis]
8. AgriProtein is a British company that operates two fly farms in South Africa. Each farm contains 8.4 billion flies, which consume 276 tonnes of food waste and lay 340 million eggs each day. Those eggs (maggots) are dehydrated, flattened and used as animal feed. The company is worth $200m, and they’re planning to open 100 more factories around the world by 2024. [Andrea Lo]
9. Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]

«

And you can probably figure out how many more there are where those came from.
link to this extract


Blippar on the brink • Sunday Times

Oliver Shah says that the London-based augmented reality company is out of funding:

»

Blippar’s failure would put 75 jobs at risk just before Christmas. It would be the latest blow for the British tech industry, following the high-profile unravellings of Powa Technologies and Ve Interactive.

Blippar once claimed to have turned down a $1.5bn takeover bid, putting it in the elite breed of start-ups valued at more than $1bn.

The development comes despite an ongoing rush of money into European tech start-ups, which attracted a total of $23bn (£18bn) this year, according to the investment firm Atomico. In 2013, the figure was $5bn.

Blippar was devised in a pub eight years ago, when Ambarish Mitra joked to co-founder Omar Tayeb that it would be “cool” if the picture on a banknote could come to life. They developed an app allowing users to scan physical objects such as supermarket promotions to produce responses on their smartphones.

Mitra, dubbed the real-life Slumdog Millionaire for his colourful — and sometimes exaggerated — backstory, has raised almost $150m from investors. Candy owns 49%, the hedge fund Lansdowne Partners holds 14%, Khazanah 12% and US tech giant Qualcomm 12%.

Blippar has burnt through money and been forced to close offices around the world to cut costs. The latest accounts, for the 12 months to March last year, showed pre-tax losses of £34.5m on sales of £5.7m.

«

AR: still a zero-billion-dollar industry.
link to this extract


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Start Up No.970: the mystery of Sandberg, Huawei’s 2013 tell, the bias around AI, the paralyzed robot waiters, and more


There are more than 8,000 of these still in use by the NHS. Is that definitely bad? CC-licensed photo by Mikhail Noel on Flickr.


It’s charity time. Today’s suggested charities are for those who are both deaf and blind. (I’ve linked in the past to Molly Watt’s descriptions of her experiences.)
In the UK there is Deafblind UK.
In the US, there are many charities and organisations supporting the deafblind.
Pick one near you.

Please give as you feel able.


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. Because why not. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

My befuddling dinner with Facebook empress Sheryl Sandberg • WIRED

Virginia Heffernan:

»

What I decided is that what middle-class women mean by “work” (cubicles) and “life” (childcare) is not what Sheryl Sandberg means by those words. The axes of existence for her might be closer to what I’d call “glamour” (scallops) and “deluxe domesticity” (her kids have a house with a private waterfall). So this night of book promotion, though there were no desks in sight, somehow counted toward the “work” in the “work-life balance” she was aiming to embody in her life of glamour and luxe.

In other words, I idolized Sheryl Sandberg the woman—good for any sister who finds a way to amass $1.6 billion for being at parties and steering clear of some boring ops job—but from the first minute I saw her in person in 2013 I was very, very concerned about Facebook. It dawned on me that Sandberg was human—a small, vain, bright, self-absorbed, convivial everywoman with a talent for money and fame—and that no one human, even Sandberg, could discipline the galactic, epochal spiritual wildfire that Mark Zuckerberg had inflicted on the Internet.

The Facebook of 2013 is now a distant memory. As 2018 comes to a close—a “low dishonest” time, as Auden said of the 1930s—that high-flying, hardly working, nap-besotted, righteous Facebook has given way to one known for secrecy and collaboration with disinformation campaigns and computational propaganda. The purpose of these campaigns at Facebook, in the words of the Oxford Internet Institute at Balliol College, is to “hack people.”

Hacking us. Not connecting us. I deactivated my Facebook account a year and a half ago, and at the same time sold the few shares of Facebook stock I’d bought to be a good sport on the day of the IPO.

«

I listened to Sandberg’s appearance in August 2017 on Desert Island Discs, a UK radio programme which interviews people about their lives and loves, and usually manages to extract some insight. Sandberg was pure Teflon; somehow both flawless and utterly uninteresting. (You might disagree; the BBC managed to extract “10 things we learned from her guest slot”.)
link to this extract


From 2013: Exclusive: Huawei CFO linked to firm that offered HP gear to Iran • Reuters

Steve Stecklow, writing in January 2013:

»

Cathy Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, served on the board of Hong Kong-based Skycom Tech Co Ltd between February 2008 and April 2009, according to Skycom records filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry.

Reuters reported last month that in late 2010, Skycom’s office in Tehran offered to sell at least 1.3 million euros worth of HP gear to Mobile Telecommunication Co of Iran, despite US trade sanctions. At least 13 pages of the proposal were marked “Huawei confidential” and carried Huawei’s logo. Huawei said neither it nor Skycom ultimately provided the HP equipment; HP said it prohibits the sale of its products to Iran.

Huawei has described Skycom as one of its “major local partners.”

«

And guess what? The arraignment of Meng Wanzhou last week included the allegation that Huawei operated SkyCom specifically in order to do business with Iran. From the latest story:

»

The US authorities allege Meng committed fraud by telling an HSBC executive her company was in compliance with US sanctions against Iran limiting communication technology. The meeting took place in 2013, but the location was not revealed.

«

The US case looks strong. This isn’t a bargaining chip.
link to this extract


The seductive diversion of ‘solving’ bias in artificial intelligence • Medium

Julia Powles and Helen Nissenbaum:

»

What has been remarkably underappreciated is the key interdependence of the twin stories of A.I. inevitability and A.I. bias. Against the corporate projection of an otherwise sunny horizon of unstoppable A.I. integration, recognizing and acknowledging bias can be seen as a strategic concession — one that subdues the scale of the challenge. Bias, like job losses and safety hazards, becomes part of the grand bargain of innovation.

The reality that bias is primarily a social problem and cannot be fully solved technically becomes a strength, rather than a weakness, for the inevitability narrative. It flips the script. It absorbs and regularizes the classification practices and underlying systems of inequality perpetuated by automation, allowing relative increases in “fairness” to be claimed as victories — even if all that is being done is to slice, dice, and redistribute the makeup of those negatively affected by actuarial decision-making.

In short, the preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles distracts us from the far more important issue of the colossal asymmetry between societal cost and private gain in the rollout of automated systems. It also denies us the possibility of asking: Should we be building these systems at all?

The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.
In accepting the existing narratives about A.I., vast zones of contest and imagination are relinquished. What is achieved is resignation — the normalization of massive data capture, a one-way transfer to technology companies, and the application of automated, predictive solutions to each and every societal problem.

Given this broader political and economic context, it should not surprise us that many prominent voices sounding the alarm on bias do so with blessing and support from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple. These convenient critics spotlight important questions, but they also suck attention from longer-term challenges. The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.

«

link to this extract


Heading to a cardiologist….. : AppleWatch • Reddit

»

If you have the Apple Watch 4 please please update to the new firmware released yesterday and take your ECG.

I did last night and tried it out. Weird. Abnormal heat rate notifications. Ran the ECG app and came back afib. Well…glitchy firmware. Let’s try again. Afib. Again and again and again. Piece of crap watch.

My wife wakes up and I put it on her. Normal. Normal. Me afib. Try the other wrist, try the underside of the wrist. Every time afib warning.

Ok. So go to Patient First. Parking lot full and I’m going to blow it off and head home. Look at the watch again, afib again.

Fine walk in and sign in. They ask what’s wrong and I’m embarrassed. ‘Ok so there is a new watch feature….hahaha….I’m silly but can we check this?”

I did not know that this comment was a quick queue pass for Patient First. I’m taken right back and hooked up. The technician looks at the screen and says “I’m going to get the doctor”

«

Yup, he had atrial fibrillation. Discovering these from day one is pretty impressive.
link to this extract


How y’all, youse and you guys talk • The New York Times

»

The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz and has since written “Speaking American,” a visual exploration of American regional dialects.

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux’s current website.

The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

«

Apparently I’m from Providence, Yonkers or New York. Fun for anyone to try, whether or not you’re American.
link to this extract


Cafe in Japan hires paralyzed people to control robot servers • Nextshark

Carl Samson:

»

A cafe with an all-robot staff controlled by paralyzed people has opened in Tokyo.

The cafe, called Dawn ver.β, held its ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 26.

Ten people with conditions like ALS [muscular dystrophy] and other spinal cord injuries are currently employed at Dawn, according to Sankei.

From home, they operate the OriHime-D, a 120-centimeter (4-foot) robot that communicates, moves around and handles objects.

Behind the OriHime-D is Ory, a startup that develops robotics for disabled people. In a video, a paralyzed man is seen “typing” commands through his eyes. The OriHime-D can also be used by people involved in childcare, nursing care or other activities that prevent them from leaving home or a certain location.

“Even those who can’t go out can work through this alter ego and have a role in society,” Ory noted.

Dawn (Diverse Avatar Working Network), based on the same cafe in the 2008 anime “Time of Eve,” imagines a coffee shop where humans and robots interact as equals, SoraNews24 noted.

The cafe, located in the Japanese capital’s Akasaka District, is a joint effort between Ory, All Nippon Airways (ANA), the Nippon Foundation, and the Avatar Robotic Consultative Association (ARCA).

«

The “workers” do get paid, though the cafe has ended the experiment as of Friday. I truly cannot decide if this is wonderful, or weirdly exploitative, or both, or neither.
link to this extract


Axe the Fax campaign leads to government ban on new fax machines in NHS by April 2020 • Silver Buck

»

An NHS campaign to remove fax machines across the health sector has led to the government announcing a ban of fax machines by April 2020.

The Axe the Fax campaign, which was launched in September, has been encouraging NHS organisations to pledge to remove their fax machines and share information, challenges and best practices with each other, largely through social media, to speed up the process.

Up until the launch of the campaign, which also features a dedicated Axe the Fax toolkit, there has been no guidance, advice or funding to support health and care organisations to improve stakeholder engagement or to change their processes to enable them to switch off the machines.

Richard Corbridge, Chief Digital Information Office at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which initiated the campaign when it announced It would remove its 340 fax machines by the end of 2018 said: “There is a huge disjoint in the digitisation of the NHS. While some areas are looking at artificial intelligence, others are still faxing patient information from one area of the hospital to another.

“Today’s announcement that fax machines will not be purchased from next month and be banned from March 2020 is a landmark in the Axe the Fax campaign, which has been locally led and driven and received huge buy-in not only from NHS organisations across the country but as far as the US and Australia.”

«

Apparently there are more than 8,000 of them in use. Yet faxes have their use: very hard to hack, point-to-point, simply sending proves it has arrived at the other end. However, they’re not entirely secure.
link to this extract


This data shows that Remainers are overwhelmingly winning the Brexit war on social media • Buzzfeed News

Alex Spence:

»

Campaigners trying to keep Britain in the European Union via a second referendum are winning the war for attention on social media, according to an analysis conducted by BuzzFeed News of the most-viral Brexit-related stories of the year.

Data tracking the social distribution of media articles on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reveals that news reports and opinion pieces portraying Brexit in a negative light are far more likely to be widely shared than those giving a positive impression of leaving the union.

Of the 100 most-viral stories about Brexit this year, 61 were negative in sentiment, according to BuzzFeed News’ review of data from BuzzSumo, a company that tracks sharing across social networks. The groundswell of anti-Brexit activity on these platforms has been a crucial factor in the campaign for a second vote, which has been gathering momentum since the summer, activists said.

In stark contrast, only eight of the 100 most-shared articles conveyed a positive view of Brexit, according to BuzzFeed News’ analysis. Two of those were columns by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the Telegraph website decrying the government’s “betrayal” of the Leave vote.

The rest of the articles were classified as neutral.

«

Three possibilities: (1) support for Remain has ramped up enormously (2) pro-Brexit bots (Russsssssian?) have been zapped by Facebook and Twitter, leaving the pro-Remain noise which shows up here (3) pro-Brexit folk have given up on social media.

On balance, I’d go with (2).
link to this extract


Eleven researchers publish sharp critique of EPA fuel economy logic • Ars Technica

Megan Geuss:

»

The EPA’s lengthy technical analysis stated that better fuel economy rules would be costly for companies. Those costs would be passed on to consumers, and those consumers would put off buying new cars with better safety features, causing accidents that would cost more than 12,000 lives. The EPA also argued that if fuel economy standards are left in place, people will be able to spend less on gas, which means they would drive more, meaning greenhouse gas emissions and driving in general might not reduce as much as expected. This so-called “rebound effect” has been well-studied in scientific literature, but economists and public policy researchers are extremely skeptical of how the current administration has applied it…

…In their Thursday letter, the researchers explained that one of the primary and most egregious differences between the reports centered on how the EPA estimated the projected fleet size of cars and trucks out to 2025. Tighter fuel economy standards lead to more expensive cars as well as more expensive used cars, the letter says. That would mean that the total US vehicle fleet would shrink if fuel economy standards are kept in place.

On the other hand, freezing the fuel economy standards would increase the total US vehicle fleet as the US economy grows. But oddly, the EPA’s 2018 report says that freezing fuel economy standards will shrink the US vehicle fleet. [Emphasis added – CA]

“This is inconsistent with basic economic principles,” the researchers wrote, adding that the EPA’s most recent model has erased about 6 million projected vehicles with little explanation. Such a model “leads to misleading conclusions related to the overall size of the fleet, fleet composition, and the amount of scrappage; and undermines EPA and NHTSA modeling efforts to improve the understanding of the costs and benefits of fuel economy standards,” the letter says.

Correcting that underestimation of vehicles almost entirely wipes out any reduction in crash fatalities that the EPA estimated, the researchers wrote. After all, more cars on the road means more crashes.

«

How surprising that the Trump administration would try to warp the calculation to fit the conclusion it wants to reach.
link to this extract


Prediction: the next ‘Friends’-style scramble at Netflix will be over ‘The Office [US]’ • BGR

Andy Meek:

»

If Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has not started thinking about what the future holds for The Office as far as its next streaming home, it likely will soon. Netflix in recent days kicked up a storm from fans of Ross, Rachel and the rest of the Friends gang when it briefly looked like the show was set to disappear from Netflix come January 1. And then some behind-the-scenes dealmaking led Netflix to win the rights to keep streaming it for another year. However, it reportedly had to pay the hefty sum of $100m for that privilege.

So if that’s how much Netflix had to pay to hang out to Friends for just a little while longer, you can bet there’s going to be a similar scramble to keep Jim, Pam and the entire Dunder Mifflin crew whose story apparently generates more viewing hours than anything else Netflix has got.

This dynamic will be fascinating to watch play out in the coming months and really throughout 2019, as a few credible streaming challengers get off the ground to potentially rival Netflix, such as Disney+. By one estimate, Netflix’s original programming at the moment makes up only 8% of its content when measured in hours. Which is why we’re going to see the streaming giant keep ramping up its slate of original offerings, things like Narcos and The Haunting of Hill House, while at the same time also doing whatever it can — such as paying massive amounts of money — to keep popular content from outside providers streaming on its platform for as long as possible.

«

In my experience, Amazon Prime is full of junk I don’t want to watch; Netflix is full of stuff I do want to watch (so far). Content is king.
link to this extract


Updated AlphaZero crushes Stockfish in new 1,000-game match • Chess.com

»

In news reminiscent of the initial AlphaZero shockwave last December, the artificial intelligence company DeepMind released astounding results from an updated version of the machine-learning chess project today.

The results leave no question, once again, that AlphaZero plays some of the strongest chess in the world.

The updated AlphaZero crushed Stockfish 8 in a new 1,000-game match, scoring 155 -6 =839…

AlphaZero also bested Stockfish in a series of time-odds matches, soundly beating the traditional engine even at time odds of 10 to one.

In additional matches, the new AlphaZero beat the “latest development version” of Stockfish, with virtually identical results as the match vs Stockfish 8, according to DeepMind. The pre-release copy of journal article, which is dated Dec. 7, 2018, does not specify the exact development version used. 

[Update: Today’s release of the full journal article specifies that the match was against the latest development version of Stockfish as of Jan. 13, 2018, which was Stockfish 9.]

«

“Some of the best chess in the world”? Come on – it’s by far the best chess player that has ever existed. Stockfish is used to analyse the human championships; maybe AlphaZero will start developing new tactics unthought of by humans, as it has in Go.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.969: Microsoft officially goes with Chromium, Apple v inflation, Google kills another messaging app, Ericsson screws up, and more


An older form of encryption. How would Australia’s government have made it give up its secrets? CC-licensed photo by Sven Graeme on Flickr.


It’s charity time. Today’s suggested one is Wikipedia: at a time when people increasingly don’t want to believe news sources, Wikipedia remains a remarkably impartial source of information about all sorts of topics. Please give as you feel appropriate.

Suggestions for other charities are welcome by email or on Twitter.


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. Treat yourself. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Edge dies a death of a thousand cuts as Microsoft switches to Chromium • Ars Technica

Peter Bright:

»

Microsoft is going to use Google’s Blink rendering engine and V8 JavaScript engine in its Edge browser, largely ending development of its own EdgeHTML rendering engine and Chakra JavaScript engine. This means that Microsoft will be using code from—and making contributions to—the Chromium open source project.

The company’s browser will still be named Edge and should retain the current look and feel. The decision to switch was motivated primarily by compatibility problems: Web developers increasingly test their pages exclusively in Chrome, which has put Edge at a significant disadvantage. Microsoft’s engineers have found that problematic pages could often be made Edge compatible with only very minor alterations, but because Web devs aren’t using Edge at all, they don’t even know that they need to change anything.

The story is, however, a little more complex. The initial version of Edge that shipped with the first version of Windows 10 was rudimentary, to say the least. It was the bare bones of a browser, but with extremely limited capabilities around things like tab management and password management, no extension model, and generally lacking in the creature comforts that represent the difference between a bare rendering engine and an actual usable browser. It also had stability issues; crashes and hangs were not uncommon.

Microsoft’s own telemetry showed that many users did give Edge a chance, but as soon as a problem was encountered—a crash, a hang, or perhaps a page that didn’t work right—they’d switch to Chrome and never really look back.

«

As in the modern smartphone wars, Microsoft entered this race at least a lap too late. But as one person commented on Twitter (I can’t find the link now), If you can get the quality of Chrome but without the tracking, you’re definitely ahead.
link to this extract


Are Apple products overpriced? • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler and Andrew van Dam:

»

Apple says prices go up because it introduces new technologies such as Face ID and invests in making products that last a long time. Yet it has clearly been feeling price discomfort from some quarters. This week, amid reports of lagging sales that took its stock far out of the trillion-dollar club, it dedicated its home page to a used-car sales technique that’s uncharacteristic for an aspirational luxury brand. It offered a “limited-time” deal to trade in an old iPhone and get a new iPhone XR for $450, a $300 discount.

Apple offers trade-ins for many products now. And not everything Apple has gone up in price: An entry-level iMac and iPad have gotten cheaper since 2014, though in both cases the company has since added a new higher-end (and higher-price) “Pro” version to its lineup.

It’s a good time to take stock of what you’re paying for. Back at the end of 2014, when the iPhone 6 came out, the average price paid for any iPhone was $634, according to BayStreet. This year, it’ll be $898. (Samsung owners over the same period went from $635 to $710, not accounting for promotions.) Add in services such as iCloud storage and AirPod headphones, and our Apple bill climbs even higher.

«

The graphic above, and the one below, both from the article, are quite telling – of Apple buyers’ loyalty and the value they perceive, as much as anything.


link to this extract


The latest on Messages, Allo, Duo and Hangouts • Google Products blog

Matt Klainer is vice president, Consumer Communications Products

»

Thanks to partnerships with over 40 carriers and device makers, over 175 million of you are now using Messages, our messaging app for Android phones, every month.

In parallel, we built Google Allo, a smart messaging app, to help you get more done in your chats and express yourself more easily. Earlier this year we paused investment in Allo and brought some of its most-loved features—like Smart Reply, GIFs and desktop support—into Messages. Given Messages’ continued momentum, we’ve decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.

Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app—here are instructions on how to do so. We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.

We built Duo, our simple, high-quality video calling app, so you never miss a moment with the people who matter most. It’s one of Google’s highest rated mobile apps and is seeing strong growth and engagement across both Android and iOS.

«

I dunno, it sounds a bit like the chairman of the football club expressing their full confidence in the manager. (They inevitably get fired a few days later.) Google’s problem these days is that it can never decide on just one product and really go with that. It did in the past – search, mail, ads – but ever since has been all over the place.
link to this extract


Australia passes bill to force tech firms to hand over encrypted data • Reuters

»

Australia’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data, the most far-reaching such requirements imposed by a western country.

The bill, staunchly opposed by the tech giants which fear Australia could be an example as other nations explore similar rules, is set to become law before the end of the year.

“Let’s just make Australians safe over Christmas,” opposition Labor party leader Bill Shorten told reporters outside parliament in the capital of Canberra.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament earlier on Thursday, was to be debated in the upper Senate, where Labor said it intended to suggest new amendments, before going back to the lower house.

In an eleventh-hour twist, Labor said that despite its reservations, it would pass the bill in the Senate, on the proviso that the coalition agreed to its amendments next year.

“We will pass the legislation, inadequate as it is, so we can give our security agencies some of the tools they say they need,” Shorten said…

…Australia’s government has said the laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organized crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

Technology companies have opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California.

«

Based on this, Australia’s politicians’ education is still somewhere in 1998. Can’t see it working, either: criminals will just use apps from companies that don’t have any base in Australia.
link to this extract


Apple’s newest Watch features will transform heart health • WIRED

Robbie Gonzalez:

»

Apple Watch’s new features [enabled via a software update this week] are designed to help users spot signs of an irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation—AFib, for short. It’s the most common form of arrhythmia, with upwards of 6 million diagnoses in America alone, a number that is expected to increase to 12 million by 2030. It’s also associated with increased risk of serious health problems like stroke.

Plus it’s underdiagnosed. Conservative estimates predict that 700,000 Americans are affected by AFib and don’t even know it, but many experts think the actual number is much higher. Apple thinks its wearables, which already adorn the wrists of millions of people, can help spotlight previously undiagnosed cases of AFib and enable patients with existing diagnoses to monitor their symptoms.

The company is backing those claims with two clinical trials, which it describes in a white paper published on its website Thursday. The first trial found that the watch’s irregular rhythm notifications compared favorably to the performance of a typical, doctor-prescribed ECG patch, accurately flagging the presence of AFib and occasionally other arrhythmias. It featured 226 people, a tiny subset of patients from a much larger, and still ongoing, study conducted in collaboration with Stanford Medicine.

«

Apple is really showing that vertical integration can pay off in early markets. Did it with the iPod, did it with the iPad, has done it with AirPods.

Note though: iPhone and Watch have to be on the latest software; Watch must have been bought in the US. Otherwise, you don’t get it.
link to this extract


Huawei faces catastrophe in the technology cold war • The Guardian

I wrote about the arrest of Huawei’s CFO – specifically, why it happened:

»

The US has long suspected that Huawei has also been involved in breaking sanctions. Internal documents seized from ZTE when it was found to be breaking sanctions showed that it knew of another Chinese company, codenamed F7, was doing the same by setting up “cut out” companies to which it would sell equipment. This would then be sold on to the sanctioned country. In one crucial passage, ZTE’s document says that “F7’s proposal to acquire US 3leaf company was opposed by the US government.” In 2010, Huawei sought to acquire 3leaf – but backed away after US government opposition.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk
Asked if it was the company referred to as F7 in the ZTE document, Huawei said: “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the UN, US and EU.”

If the US can prove that Huawei broke Obama-era sanctions against Iran, it could precipitate a rush of bans against the company. If, like ZTE, it were banned from receiving American parts, its smartphone business, the world’s second largest behind Samsung, would grind to a halt.

«

The document is really worth reading. I did a Twitter thread about it with some extracts. Circumstantial, but quite a thing.
link to this extract


Update on software issue impacting certain customers • Ericsson

»

Börje Ekholm, President and CEO, Ericsson, says: “The faulty software that has caused these issues is being decommissioned and we apologize not only to our customers but also to their customers. We work hard to ensure that our customers can limit the impact and restore their services as soon as possible.”

An initial root cause analysis indicates that the main issue was an expired certificate in the software versions installed with these customers. A complete and comprehensive root cause analysis is still in progress. Our focus is now on solving the immediate issues.

During the course of December 6, most of the affected customers’ network services have been successfully restored. We are working closely with the remaining customers that are still experiencing issues.

«

Oh WELL DONE. Only affected 31 million customers or so at a time when Huawei was on the ropes, PR-wise.
link to this extract


The statistical rule of three • John Cook Consulting

»

suppose you are testing children for perfect pitch. You’ve tested 100 children so far and haven’t found any with perfect pitch. Do you conclude that children don’t have perfect pitch? You know that some do because you’ve heard of instances before. Your data suggest perfect pitch in children is at least rare. But how rare?

The rule of three gives a quick and dirty way to estimate these kinds of probabilities. It says that if you’ve tested N cases and haven’t found what you’re looking for, a reasonable estimate is that the probability is less than 3/N. So in our proofreading example, if you haven’t found any typos in 20 pages, you could estimate that the probability of a page having a typo is less than 15%. In the perfect pitch example, you could conclude that fewer than 3% of children have perfect pitch.

Note that the rule of three says that your probability estimate goes down in proportion to the number of cases you’ve studied. If you’d read 200 pages without finding a typo, your estimate would drop from 15% to 1.5%. But it doesn’t suddenly drop to zero. I imagine most people would harbor a suspicion that that there may be typos even though they haven’t seen any in the first few pages. But at some point they might say “I’ve read so many pages without finding any errors, there must not be any.” The situation is a little different with the perfect pitch example, however, because you may know before you start that the probability cannot be zero.

If the sight of math makes you squeamish, you might want to stop reading now. Just remember that if you haven’t seen something happen in N observations, a good estimate is that the chances of it happening are less than 3/N.

«

I had never heard of this.
link to this extract


How to game the App Store • David Barnard

He’s a third-party app developer:

»

As I’ve said many times before, the App Store is not a free market. Apple can and does dramatically shape the App Store economy. Similar to how governments shape economies through tax law and other policies, Apple shapes the App Store economy through App Review policies, App Store implementation details, editorial decisions, the App Store search algorithm, and in so many other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I’d love to see Apple wield that power to shape the App Store in ways that will sustain and encourage meaningful development instead of continuing to allow the deck to be stacked against it.

I know what you’re thinking… these are just the ramblings of a failed app developer who blames Apple for their own shortcomings. Quite the opposite. While not an “App Store millionaire”, for the past 10 years I’ve provided for my (growing) family solely on revenue from my apps. And three of my apps have grossed over $1m. While my net income (I spend a lot on design, share revenue with partners, pay Apple 30% on some of that, pay self employment tax, pay way too much for health insurance, etc) hasn’t made me a millionaire (or anywhere close), I’m still blown away that my apps have been downloaded by millions of people, been featured countless times by Apple, mentioned everywhere from indie blogs to the NY Times, and grossed millions of dollars.

My critique of Apple’s management of the App Store (which began in 2008) has never been about embarassing Apple or denigrating its employees or motives, I want to see this amazing platform Apple created be the best it can possibly be. The App Store is an incredible marketplace that has generated tens of billions in revenue while empowering billions of people around the world to do amazing things with these magical little computers we carry around in our pockets. But I do think the overall success of the App Store has blinded Apple to the need for various course corrections over the years. And as the financial incentive to build and maintain great niche apps dries up, the beautiful and diverse forest of apps that is the App Store will slowly start to look more like the unkempt Play Store.

«

What follows is a hell of a dissection of the failings of the App Store as it stands. Apple does need to consider what it’s doing, and not doing.
link to this extract


In Indonesia Lion Air crash, black box data reveal pilots’ struggle to regain control • The New York Times

James Glanz, Muktita Suhartono and Hannah Beech:

»

Data from the jetliner that crashed into the Java Sea last month shows the pilots fought to save the plane almost from the moment it took off, as the Boeing 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings.

The information from the flight data recorder, contained in a preliminary report prepared by Indonesian crash investigators and released on Wednesday, documents a fatal tug of war between man and machine, with the plane’s nose forced dangerously downward over two dozen times during the 11-minute flight.

The pilots managed to pull the nose back up over and over until finally losing control, leaving the plane, Lion Air Flight 610, to plummet into the ocean at 450 miles per hour, killing all 189 people on board.

The data from the so-called black box is consistent with the theory that investigators have been most focused on: that a computerized system Boeing installed on its latest generation of 737 to prevent the plane’s nose from getting too high and causing a stall instead forced the nose down because of incorrect information it was receiving from sensors on the fuselage.

«

link to this extract


A backlash is coming to Carlos Ghosn’s arrest • Bloomberg

Joe Nocera:

»

People who know nothing about the Japanese justice system are going to start asking aloud how Ghosn’s ordeal [in which he remains in a small cell, and is interrogated for hours at a time] can possibly be justified. They’ll ask why Japanese executives who have been embroiled in far bigger scandals – the ones who cooked the books at Olympus Corp., say, or oversaw the faulty airbags at Takata Corp. – weren’t treated as harshly as Ghosn. They’ll ask, finally, whether the whole thing was a ruse, designed to get Ghosn out of the way so that Nissan’s Japanese executives could reassert control of the company.

Because there’s a pretty good chance that’s what’s really happened here. According to the Japanese news media, a Nissan whistleblower informed prosecutors of Ghosn’s alleged crimes. If so, the timing was awfully convenient. As Bloomberg reported earlier this year, Ghosn was pushing for Renault and Nissan – which had been part of a Ghosn-led alliance since 1999 1  – to merge into a single company. Most Nissan executives, starting with CEO Hiroto Saikawa, vehemently opposed the merger.

Two decades earlier, Ghosn created the alliance to help Nissan avoid bankruptcy; he had Renault invest $5 billion in the Japanese company in return for a one-third stake. (Renault currently owns 43% of Nissan, while Nissan owns 15% of Renault.) With Nissan now bigger and more profitable than Renault, the Japanese executives bristle at the alliance. And they deeply resent having to take orders from the often high-handed Ghosn.

My theory – and I’m hardly the only one who believes this – is that Nissan’s executives, unable to fire their chairman, had him arrested instead, along with Kelly, the only other Westerner on the Nissan board.

«

I have wondered from the start whether this is actually an Olympus scenario. This remains my suspicion – not because westerners can’t commit crimes, or do so in Japan, but because the crimes he’s accused of are so bizarre. Underdeclaring income? His income is decided by the company.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.968: Facebook’s emails released, can Uber make a profit?, Tom Cruise v motion smoothing, BT v Huawei, and more


Facebook has been getting a thumbs-down for a number of its past practices, revealed by emails. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Gardner on Flickr.


It’s December: charity time. Today’s suggested charities:
– UK readers: The National Deaf Children’s Society
– US readers: American Society for Deaf Children
– Australian readers: Deaf Children Australia
(In other countries try a search on “deaf children [your country]”.)


A selection of 12 links for you. Could be five, could be more. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Canadian authorities arrest CFO of Huawei Technologies at US request • WSJ

Kate O’Keeffe and Stu Woo:

»

Canadian authorities in Vancouver have arrested Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer at the request of the U.S. government for alleged violations of Iranian sanctions, the latest move by Washington to crack down on the Chinese cellular-technology giant.

A spokesman for Canada’s justice department said Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 and is sought for extradition by the US. A bail hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Friday, according to the spokesman. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, serves as the company’s CFO and deputy chairwoman.

Ms. Meng’s arrest comes amid a year-long U.S. government campaign against a company it views as a national-security threat. In the past year, Washington has taken a series of steps to restrict Huawei’s business on American soil and, more recently, launched an extraordinary international outreach campaign to persuade allied countries to enact similar curbs.

«

Holy cow. And speaking of “similar” curbs…
link to this extract


BT to strip Huawei equipment from its core 4G network • Financial Times

Nic Fildes:

»

BT will strip Huawei equipment out of its core 4G network within two years to bring its mobile phone business in line with an internal policy to keep the Chinese company’s equipment at the periphery of telecoms infrastructure.

Governments around the world have become increasingly wary of Huawei’s presence in critical national telecoms infrastructure, especially as they prepare for auctions for 5G, a superfast service that will enable a new generation of digital products and services.

The US, Australia and New Zealand have moved to block the use of the Chinese company’s 5G equipment on security grounds, and the head of the UK’s secret service has warned that the UK must decide whether to follow suit.

«

First the US blocks Huawei from selling handsets on AT&T, now BT is pushing it out of the EE network (which it bought in 2016). This isn’t so much BT reversing anything, as implementing a policy it’s always had.
link to this extract


Facebook used people’s data to favour certain partners and punish rivals, documents show • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac:

»

Facebook used the mountains of data it collected on users to favour certain partners and punish rivals, giving companies such as Airbnb and Netflix special access to its platform while cutting off others that it perceived as threats.

The tactics came to light on Wednesday from internal Facebook emails and other company documents released by a British parliamentary committee that is investigating online misinformation. The documents spotlight Facebook’s behavior from roughly 2012 to 2015, a period of explosive growth as the company navigated how to manage the information it was gathering on users and debated how best to profit from what it was building.

The documents show how Facebook executives treated data as the company’s most valuable resource and often wielded it to gain a strategic advantage. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, were intimately involved in decisions aimed at benefiting the social network above all else and keeping users as engaged as possible on the site, according to emails that were part of the document trove.

In one exchange from 2012 when Mr. Zuckerberg discussed charging developers for access to user data and persuading them to share their data with the social network, he wrote: “It’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform — even the read side — is to increase sharing back into Facebook.”

«

The fallout from these emails is going to go on and on. Here are a few more stories from them…
link to this extract


Facebook knew Android call-scraping would be ‘high-risk’ • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

»

In March, many Android users were shocked to discover that Facebook had been collecting a record of their call and SMS history, as revealed by the company’s data download tool. Now, internal emails released by the UK Parliament show how the decision was made internally. According to the emails, developers knew the data was sensitive, but they still pushed to collect it as a way of expanding Facebook’s reach.

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.

«

And then Facebook denied up and down it had done this. This is what growth hacking does: it kills moral judgement.
link to this extract


Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

»

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

«

This, after it killed off apps like Vine and so on.
link to this extract


Facebook’s internal tensions are spilling beyond the company’s walls • Buzzfeed News

Charlie Warzel:

»

Internally, the conflict seems to have divided Facebook into three camps: those loyal to Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg; those who see the current scandals as proof of a larger corporate meltdown; and a group who see the entire narrative — including the portrayal of the company’s hiring of communications consulting firm Definers Public Affairs — as examples of biased media attacks.

“It’s otherwise rational, sane people who’re in Mark’s orbit spouting full-blown anti-media rhetoric, saying that the press is ganging up on Facebook,” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s the bunker mentality. These people have been under siege for 600 days now. They’re getting tired, getting cranky — the only survival strategy is to quit or fully buy in.”

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson called this “a challenging time.”

“We are more determined than ever to continue making progress on the issues we’ve faced,” they said. “People at Facebook are focused on building products that help people connect and have a positive impact in the world.”

Two former employees said the spate of negative reports has cast a shadow over the company in recent weeks. Current and former employees describe a tense and, at times, hostile atmosphere inside the company, one in which both senior employees and even staunch loyalists are contemplating their futures.

People are “hoping for a Sundar or Dara moment,” one former senior Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News, referring to past leadership changes at Google and Uber in which founding employees stepped aside from top jobs. A second senior employee echoed the view, suggesting that some inside the ranks are looking for a shakeup to come from the outside.

«

link to this extract


Searching the creative internet • Crawshaw

David Crawshaw:

»

What I miss about my “90s internet” wasn’t it specifically, with its slow data links, tiny JPEGs, buffering RealPlayer, or the tag. It did not the tiniest fraction of the wonderful content the internet has today.

What I miss is that I could “go on the internet” and be in a creative corner of the human experience. Today if you “go on the internet”, that means you pulled your phone out of your pocket, dismissed some notification spam and start reading click-bait shared by people you have met on social media.

Today you have to choke your way through the money-making miasma to find the joy.

I wish the internet of creative people and their works had a front page and a search engine. Something that made finding the blog about the search for planet 9 easy to find, and the New Yorker article on it hard to find. A place where wikipedia articles came first, where all the interesting technical stuff you might find in whitequark’s feed was what you got instead of sidebar ads, not buried away behind the popular and the profitable. Where a D&D podcast made by three brothers and their dad in West Virginia was as easy to find as the podcasts produced by NPR’s $200m/year machine.

There is enough interest the creative web to pay for its tools. Wikipedia raises $80m a year from donations! (What they spend it on does not seem at all effective to me, but it’s not my money. Your software does cost more when you have to spend time making sure it doesn’t hurt your fundraising.)

«

link to this extract


Will Uber survive the next decade? • NY Mag

Yves Smith:

»

Uber has never presented a case as to why it will ever be profitable, let alone earn an adequate return on capital. Investors are pinning their hopes on a successful IPO, which means finding greater fools in sufficient numbers.

Uber is a taxi company with an app attached. It bears almost no resemblance to internet superstars it claims to emulate. The app is not technically daunting and and does not create a competitive barrier, as witnessed by the fact that many other players have copied it. Apps have been introduced for airlines, pizza delivery, and hundreds of other consumer services but have never generated market-share gains, much less tens of billions in corporate value. They do not create network effects. Unlike Facebook or eBay, having more Uber users does not improve the service.

Nor, after a certain point, does adding more drivers. Uber does regularly claim that its app creates economies of scale for drivers — but for that to be the case, adding more drivers would have to benefit drivers. It doesn’t. More drivers means more competition for available jobs, which means less utilization per driver. There is a trade-off between capacity and utilization in a transportation system, which you do not see in digital networks. The classic use of “network effects” referred to the design of an integrated transport network — an airline hub and spoke network which create utility for passengers (or packages) by having more opportunities to connect to more destinations versus linear point-to-point routes. Uber is obviously not a fixed network with integrated routes — taxi passengers do not connect between different vehicles.

«

The context: Uber just announced a $1bn loss for the quarter. Never mind, they’ll make it up in volume.
link to this extract


California fires released emissions equal to a year of power use • Quartz

Zoe Schlanger:

»

California’s 2018 fire season, including the largest fire in state history, released nearly as much climate-warming and air-polluting emissions as a year’s worth of electricity use there.

The wildfires released 68 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, according to the US Geological Survey, or 15% of the state’s total emissions. For comparison, all electricity use in California in 2016 produced roughly 76 million tons in emissions.

Those figures were the highlights of a Nov. 30 statement from the Interior Department that blamed the wildfires largely on forest-management practices.

«

This is a bad take (and to be clear, the source of the badness is the DOI): the “emissions” from burning short-lived plants are completely unlike those from burning gas (a fossil fuel), which is half of California’s generation) or coal (a fossil fuel). Short-lived plants weren’t buried underground for millions of years; they’re carbon-neutral, viewed over the lifespan of most people.

It’s clueless of the DOI to put out this statement, but clueless too of publications to repeat it without pointing out how wrong it is.
link to this extract


The global online dating landscape in 2018 • GlobalWebIndex

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At 65% of the user base, men outnumber women almost 2 to 1 as the biggest online daters.

Most growth in the online dating market seems to be coming from location-based dating apps, like Happn and Badoo, which have crept up slowly from 7% monthly usage to 13% in the past three years. On the other hand, paid-for online dating services have flatlined, as illustrated in our latest infographic taking an in-depth look at the global online dating landscape.

Acceptance and adoption aren’t universal though. As expected, younger people make up the majority of online daters: 75% of online daters are under the age of 30, and 90% are under 40. Among singles who use the internet, online dating peaks at the age of 25.  This audience is truly global too, especially throughout emerging markets.

Populations in these markets are generally younger, but the greater popularity holds up even after taking age differences into account. This means dating apps face larger implicit competition from other sources of socializing – dating-led or not. But it also reveals the potential to integrate with social media platforms, which we’ve already seen with Facebook announcing it was trialling a dating app.

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Motion impossible: Tom Cruise declares war on TV frame interpolation • The Guardian

Stuart Heritage:

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This has been a landmark year for Tom Cruise. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout he made the action film of his career. He’s currently filming a sequel to one of his most beloved films, Top Gun. And it’s been rumoured that he has plans to make history by literally filming Mission: Impossible 7 in space.

How on earth could Tom Cruise manage to top all this? Simple. He’s made a video urging you to switch off motion smoothing on your TV. For this, he deserves everything. Welcome back, Tom. We’ve missed you.

At 9:46 last night, Tom tweeted an 87-second video in which he and his go-to director Christopher McQuarrie explained the concept of video interpolation and why it is the death of all good things. Video interpolation, they explained, is a digital video effect used to improve the quality of high-definition sport. “The unfortunate effect is that it makes most movies look like they were shot on high-speed video rather than film,” said Cruise. “This is sometimes referred to as the ‘soap-opera effect’.” They explained that most HD televisions come with video interpolation switched on by default, they explained how to switch it off, and then they both nodded with total sincerity…

…you’d better believe that, if Tom Cruise wants you to turn off motion smoothing on your television, you will turn off motion smoothing on your television. This video is just the start. The next stage will be visiting your house personally and asking you nicely. After that he’ll visit your house and verbally threaten you. If you still haven’t switched off motion smoothing by then, Tom Cruise will force himself through your TV screen using willpower alone, like the girl from The Ring, grab the remote out of your dumb cow hands and turn off motion smoothing himself. He will do whatever it takes.

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Come on, I mean, just for the headline alone.
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Bizarre ‘dark fluid’ with negative mass could dominate the universe – what my research suggests • The Conversation

Jamie Farnes is a research associate and astrophysicist at the University of Oxford’s e-Research Centre:

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Negative masses are a hypothetical form of matter that would have a type of negative gravity – repelling all other material around them. Unlike familiar positive mass matter, if a negative mass was pushed, it would accelerate towards you rather than away from you.

Negative masses are not a new idea in cosmology. Just like normal matter, negative mass particles would become more spread out as the universe expands – meaning that their repulsive force would become weaker over time. However, studies have shown that the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe is relentlessly constant. This inconsistency has previously led researchers to abandon this idea. If a dark fluid exists, it should not thin out over time.

In the new study, I propose a modification to Einstein’s theory of general relativity to allow negative masses to not only exist, but to be created continuously. “Matter creation” was already included in an early alternative theory to the Big Bang, known as the Steady State model. The main assumption was that (positive mass) matter was continuously created to replenish material as the universe expands. We now know from observational evidence that this is incorrect. However, that doesn’t mean that negative mass matter can’t be continuously created. I show that this assumed dark fluid is never spread too thinly. Instead it behaves exactly like dark energy.

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Well, at least it gives you something to talk about at parties.
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