Start up: AdBlock hits 100m users, is Facebook left-wing?, Baidu’s search under fire, robot surgeon wins, and more


Fires burning near Fort McMurray: if you had a smart home, you could watch it burn down like one unlucky man. Photo by Premier of Alberta on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Another thing your connected home will let you do: watch it burn • The Verge

Vlad Savov:

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A major wildfire near Fort McMurray in Canada has forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate the area and destroyed roughly a fifth of local homes. One of the affected houses belonged to a man by the name of James O’Reilly, who got a uniquely intimate perspective on his home’s demise thanks to a connected security camera.

O’Reilly shared the above video with the Edmonton Metro, after first witnessing it on his iPhone while driving away from the fire. It’s a deeply unsettling thing to watch, with crackling noises and small tufts of smoke being the first signs of the fire’s invasion. The living room is eventually deluged by the flames while alarms bleat and the camera turns monochrome shortly before it cuts out.

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link to this extract


11 everyday things that won’t exist In ten years’ time • Buzzfeed

Cisco made the list, so I’ll save you the trouble: traffic jams; physical credit cards; headphones; plasters (eg Elastoplast); delivery people; remote controls; passwords; physical media; wired chargers; phone towers; “offline”.

Me: they’ll all be safely around in 2026, perhaps apart from “offline”.
link to this extract


Google said to be exploring an ‘acceptable’ ads policy • Digiday

Lucia Moses:

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Google, with its tech chops and its control over digital ad delivery, is positioned to do what individual publishers and their associations can’t do on their own, though, by requiring that ads are not obtrusive or annoying — a main reason people choose to block ads. While it is unclear how a Google scheme would work, a likely scenario is that Google would ensure that only ads that meet its standards can run on its own site and YouTube, and also through its DoubleClick ad exchange through which publishers sell their inventory.

Currently, publishers face resistance from advertisers that don’t feel the pressure to change their ads to make them load faster. Having the backing of a big player, Google, could give publishers sway with those advertisers. “Clearly, someone has to grab hold of this situation that has scope,” one publishing exec with direct knowledge of Google’s plans.

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The aim being to forestall the growth of adblocking. Speaking of which…
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Adblock Plus and (a little) more: 100 million users, 100 million thank-yous • AdBlock Plus

Ben Williams:

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Today, on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in Brooklyn, our co-founder Till Faida announced that we now have more than 100 million active users (by “active users” we mean “active installations,” i.e. you may be counted as more than one “user” if you’ve got ABP active on multiple devices). These are our latest numbers, which we’ve been working for months on getting more accurate without breaking our strict privacy policy. Harder than it sounds … Happily, we’ve got some stupid smart data scientists who’ve figured out a way to get an accurate estimation.

While user numbers in countries where ad blocking is fairly well-known, like Germany and France, are pretty stable, in countries like the US and UK people are really coming on to the benefits of taking back control of their online experience.

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Like to see the adoption curve.
link to this extract


Former Facebook workers: we routinely suppressed conservative news • Gizmodo

Michael Nunez:

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Another former curator agreed that the operation had an aversion to right-wing news sources. “It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said the former curator. “Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.”

Stories covered by conservative outlets (like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax) that were trending enough to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithm were excluded unless mainstream sites like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN covered the same stories.

Other former curators interviewed by Gizmodo denied consciously suppressing conservative news, and we were unable to determine if left-wing news topics or sources were similarly suppressed. The conservative curator described the omissions as a function of his colleagues’ judgements; there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work.

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Weeeelll. Facebook’s been trying to kill “fake news” on Facebook, and arguably that also includes “junk news”. You could think of some left-wing sites that might be as junky; then you’d have to see whether they got the same treatment. (I suspect so.) Basically, Facebook tried to run a “respectable” news organisation. One feels a littttttle bit of resentment from the (conservative) former curators who have come forward.
link to this extract


China Focus: Investigation finds Baidu’s objectivity compromised by profit model • Xinhua

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The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on Monday demanded an overhaul of China’s leading search-engine Baidu following an investigation.

The CAC said Baidu relied excessively on profits from paid listings in search results, and did not clearly label such listings as the result of commercial promotion, compromising the objectivity and impartiality of search results.

Like other search engines [in China], Baidu sells links that appear in search results. The more an advertiser pays, the higher it will appear in the search results. The public are likely to be misled by the search results they find on Baidu, the CAC said.

NASDAQ-listed Baidu was already in the eye of a public-relations storm after the death of Wei Zexi, 21, a computer science major at Xidian University in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

Wei was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in 2014 and had been undergoing a controversial cancer treatment advertised on Baidu, at the Second Hospital of Armed Police Beijing Corps, which the Wei family also found through a Baidu search. The treatment was unsuccessful and Wei died on April 12.

In February, on question-and-answer website Zhihu, a Chinese version of Quora, Wei directly accused Baidu of being at least partly to blame for his troubles. The anger of netizens who claim the search engine does not properly check the credentials of advertisers has been growing ever since.

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Wow. You’d think that someone might have chosen to use Google’s search algorithm, on the basis that it works pretty well and puts you ahead of the rest.
link to this extract


Autonomous robot surgeon bests humans in world first • IEEE Spectrum

Eliza Strickland:

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the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) did a better job on the operation than human surgeons who were given the same task.

STAR’s inventors don’t claim that robots can replace humans in the operating room anytime soon. Instead they see the accomplishment as a proof of concept—both for the specific technologies used and for the general concept of “supervised autonomy” in the OR.

Pediatric surgeon Peter Kim, one of the researchers, didn’t sound threatened when he spoke to reporters in a press call yesterday. “Even though we surgeons take pride in our craft at doing procedures, to have a machine that works with us to improve outcomes and safety would be a tremendous benefit,” he said.

For this study, published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers programmed their robot to carry out a procedure called intestinal anastomosis, in which a piece of intestine that’s been cut through is stitched back together. It’s like repairing a garden hose, said Ryan Decker, the senior engineer on the team, in that the sutures must be tight and regularly spaced to prevent leaks. STAR performed this task both on ex vivo tissue in the lab and on in vivo tissue in an anesthetized pig, and experienced human surgeons were given the same tasks. When the resulting sutures were compared, STAR’s stitches were more consistent and more resistant to leaks.

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What’s its bedside manner like?
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Cheating students at Rangsit University blacklisted • Bangkok Post: news

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Rector Arthit Ourairat said on Monday the three students caught red-handed while cheating on the university-organised direct admission tests for College of Medicine, and Faculties of Dental Medicine and Pharmacy will not be allowed to retake the exams for May 31 and June 1.

“The university has put the three students on the blacklist and the won’t be able to apply for seats with us again. I cannot say whether they will be allowed to take exams at other universities,” he told reporters.

The university in Muang district in Pathum Thani found the three using hi-tech devices to cheat on the tests. Their smartwatches had answers written in a code sent from a private tutorial institution or probably more than one.

Proxies wearing camera-equipped glasses were sent to take the exams. After filming the exam sheets by the camera, the gang members left the test centre with the information [after staying the minimum 45 minutes of the three-hour exam]. Another person waiting outside downloaded the tests to a computer and emailed them to one or more tutorial schools. They sent the answers back to the students on their smartwatches.

All test supervisors were alerted on Saturday when the university seized one smartwatch in the morning session and another in the afternoon. The third watch and two glasses were seized on Sunday.

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The questions are easy enough to be answerable in code? Also: finally, a sales case for smartwatches among today’s youth.
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Cost cutting at Dropbox and Silicon Valley startups • Business Insider

Eugene Kim:

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Dropbox has made other changes to its famously lavish employee perks lately, reflecting its more cutthroat attitude toward cash management.

In a company-wide email in March, Dropbox said it was cancelling its free shuttle in San Francisco and its gym washing service, while pushing back dinner time by an hour to 7 p.m. and limiting the number of guests to five a month. (Previously it was unlimited, a big perk given its open bar on Fridays.)

Those changes will have a direct impact on Dropbox’s profitability. The company wrote in the email that employee perks in total have been costing Dropbox at least $25,000 a year for each employee. Based on Dropbox’s roughly 1,500 headcount, that would translate to about $38m a year. At that scale, any kind of cost savings would help improve its bottom line. Dropbox declined to comment.

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To an outsider, that spending sounds insane. “Gym washing”? What is that? Kim’s story makes clear that others are cutting back too.
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A bomb just dropped in endpoint security… and I’m not sure anyone noticed • Alex Eckelberry

Eckelberry used to run Sunbelt Software, though he’s better now; but still interested in the antivirus scene. His comments on Google ending non-contributory access to VirusTotal (noted yesterday):

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here’s the dirty little secret that very few people know. There are a number of endpoint products that use VirusTotal to determine if a file is malicious. Without any contribution to the community. Without giving anything in return. 

They simply pay VirusTotal a subscription fee, and receive the information.

And some of these companies have been getting a lot of attention for their supposed prowess. But for some mysterious reason, they refuse to put their own engines on VirusTotal. Could it be because they don’t want to contribute back? Maybe. Or it could be that they just don’t want everyone else to see how poorly their products actually perform.

Unfair? Yes.
Using VirusTotal information without any contribution back to the community is patently unfair. The people who are actually writing detections are sharing their results with the rest of the community, while a small group of endpoint products have been boasting of their extraordinary abilities, while working off the backs of other researchers. 

So as a customer, perhaps you can ask the next endpoint security vendor if they’re on VirusTotal. If they are, they’re contributing to the antivirus community. If they’re not, they’re not. Whatever their PR story, that’s the simple truth.

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Which will have ramifications for those who have bought products from the non-contributors, he says.
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Please Enter Your Password • unexpected error !?

Nick Forge:

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It is generally established in much of the tech industry that improving “quality” by improving the design and implementation of your product is a smart business strategy. Every password prompt you show without a legitimate reason will leave your users slightly less certain about either your product – “ugh, it should already know my password, this product is stupid!” – or less certain about themselves, their knowledge and their competence – “what am I doing wrong, why do I have to keep entering my password?”. No matter what their exact response is, it’s almost certainly going to be negative for either the user, your product and company, or both.

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Forge explains neatly why you keep getting those requests for your password at time when you shouldn’t need to enter your password. Essentially, it’s network problems where the code design has got lazy.
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Second Oracle v. Google trial could lead to huge headaches for developers • Ars Technica

Joe Mullin:

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The Federal Circuit’s rule allows a company to use copyright law in order to stop others from calling on its APIs and interacting with its code. In the eyes of many tech companies, software developers, and open source advocates, that’s going to create a lot of unnecessary legal risk. In the wake of Oracle v. Google, calling on someone else’s API could get you sued.

In the EFF’s view, the Federal Circuit decision was wrong and conflicts with existing 9th Circuit cases, like Sega v. Accolade (1992) and Sony v. Connectix (2000), which allow for interoperability between systems, whether a copyright owner likes it or not.

Because of the Federal Circuit decision, a developer or company can be subject to a copyright suit over use of an API. Some of those lawsuits will be brought by copyright owners who just want to shut down competition, Stoltz said. That means developers will “spend more time talking to their lawyers, and they’ll be more worried.”

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And Oracle’s damages claim is huge too. Nothing good is coming from this, even if Google wins on all counts: copyright on APIs puts others at risk.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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