Start up: Google kills payday ads, software kills satellite, Uber v Hollywood, Swiss watches unwind, and more


Open data has stopped parking tickets being wrongfully handed out in New York. Photo by Instant Vantage on Flickr.

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

Why aspiring Leonardo DiCaprios are now driving Ubers instead of Waiting tables • Vanity Fair

Nick Bilton:

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My Uber driver was pulling onto the freeway, in Los Angeles, when he looked into the rearview mirror and told me he was going to let me in on a little secret.

Sitting in the backseat, I was in full-on reporter mode, asking him the rudimentary questions that have become second nature: What else did he do for a living? (Tattoo artist.) Did he drive for Lyft too? (Yes.) Then I asked him about the longest drive he had ever taken for a ride-sharing service.

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said, before detailing a multi-hour journey to another city in California.

“Wow,” I replied, stunned that anyone would hire an Uber to take them that far.

“Yep,” he said with a smirk, which led my driver to share his secret. The reason for the long trip, he explained, was that his passenger was transporting a black duffel bag full of cocaine. When I asked how he knew about this transaction, my driver explained that this particular passenger was quite forthcoming. The dealer said that he used to do the drive himself, but now Uber and Lyft had become his new method of choice for transporting narcotics. “If he was driving his own car, he could get pulled over for any number of reasons; not stopping at a light; not using a blinker; speeding,” my driver explained to me. “But if I get pulled over, the cops aren’t going to search him and I’m certainly not going to get into any trouble.”

He then told me that these ride-sharing services have inadvertently facilitated a lot of illegal behavior in Los Angeles—some of which is depicted in the driver forum Uberpeople.net. “I pick up hookers and drug dealers all the time,” my driver continued nonchalantly. “In New York City or San Francisco, a dealer can ride a bike, but in L.A., you need a car. It’s much safer to use Uber to deliver a big bag of coke.” (Spokespeople for Uber and Lyft responded by pointing me to their respective terms of service, both of which prohibit passengers from violating local laws and statutes.)

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Sure they do. This is a great read.
link to this extract


Congress warned about cybersecurity after attempted ransomware attack on House • TechCrunch

Kate Conger:

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Congressional gridlock can usually be blamed on stubborn representatives and senators. But a new string of ransomware attacks on the House of Representatives could stall legislation more effectively than party infighting or a filibuster.

In an email provided to TechCrunch, the House technology service desk warned representatives of increased ransomware attacks on the House network. The email warns that attackers are focusing their efforts on third-party email apps, like YahooMail and Gmail, and tells representatives that access to YahooMail will be blocked on House networks.

“When a user clicks on the link in the attack e-mail, the malware encrypts all files on that computer, including shared files, making them unusable until a ‘ransom’ is paid. The recent attacks have focused on using .js files attached as zip files to e-mail that appear to come from known senders,” the email notes.

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Better to attack legislators than the actual government. This is going to happen.
link to this extract


Where does America’s e-waste end up? GPS tracker tells all • PBS NewsHour

Katie Campbell and Ken Christensen:

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[Jim] Puckett’s organization [Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog], partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put 200 geolocating tracking devices inside old computers, TVs and printers. They dropped them off nationwide at donation centers, recyclers and electronic take-back programs — enterprises that advertise themselves as “green,” “sustainable,” “earth friendly” and “environmentally responsible.”

“The trackers are like miniature cell phones,” he said. “The little devices went out and spoke to us, called home regularly, saying ‘this is where I am.’”

About a third of the tracked electronics went overseas — some as far as 12,000 miles. That includes six of the 14 tracker-equipped electronics that Puckett’s group dropped off to be recycled in Washington and Oregon.

The tracked electronics ended up in Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Canada and Kenya. Most often, they traveled across the Pacific to rural Hong Kong…

…A worker shouts from beyond the fence and Su tells him the group is shopping for used electronics. She says they want to fill a shipping container with printers to refurbish and sell in Pakistan. The door opens.

Inside, workers are dismantling LCD TVs. The ground at their feet is littered with broken white tubes. These fluorescent lamps were made to light up flat-screens. When they break they release invisible mercury vapor. Even a minuscule amount of mercury can be a neurotoxin.

The workers aren’t wearing protective face masks. One worker says he isn’t aware of the risks.

“He had no idea,” Su says, after speaking with him in Mandarin.

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link to this extract


Software update destroys $286m Japanese satellite • Hackaday

Rud Merriam:

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The Japanese X-ray telescope Hitomi has been declared lost after it disintegrated in orbit, torn apart when spinning out of control. The cause is still under investigation but early analysis points to bad data in a software package pushed shortly after an instrument probe was extended from the rear of the satellite. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, lost $286m, three years of planned observations, and a possible additional 10 years of science research.

Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, successfully launched on February 17, 2016 but on March 26th catastrophe struck, leaving only pieces floating in space. JAXA, desperately worked to recover the satellite not knowing the extent of the failure. On April 28th they discontinued their efforts and are now working to determine the reasons for the failure, although a few weeks ago they did provide an analysis of the failure sequence at a press conference.

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Soon to be a plotline in a disaster movie.
link to this extract


The NYPD was systematically ticketing legally parked cars for millions of dollars a year; open data just put an end to it • I Quant NY

Ben Wellington:

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New York City is a complex place to drive.  And when it comes to parking, there are plenty of rules and regulations to follow.  It’s no wonder that sometimes people get confused and end up getting their cars ticketed or towed. 

But in all of these rules, there is one thing that very few drivers seem to know. As of late 2008, in NYC you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk.  It’s all written up in the NYC Traffic Rules, and for more detail, take a look at this article. The local legislation making these parking spots legal was proposed by Council Member Gentile, and adopted by the Department of Transportation before it ever made it for a vote.  Though few people seem to know about the change.

Is it a problem that drivers don’t realize that there are some extra parking spots they are now allowed to park in?  Not so much.  But, I’ve got a pedestrian ramp leading to nowhere particular in the middle of my block in Brooklyn, and on occasion I have parked there.  Despite the fact that it is legal, I’ve been ticketed for parking there.  Though I get the tickets dismissed, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. And that got me wondering- How common is it for the police to give tickets to cars legally parked in front of pedestrian ramps?  It couldn’t be just me…

In the past, there was not much you could do to stop something like this. Complaining to your local precinct would at best only solve the problem locally. But thanks to NYC’s Open Data portal, I was able to look at the most common parking spots in the City where cars were ticketed for blocking pedestrian ramps.

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It wasn’t. This is the best sort of open data story. Note to London’s new mayor: no parking ticket data yet.
link to this extract


An update to our AdWords policy on lending products • Google Public Policy Blog

David Graff, director of global product policy:

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We have an extensive set of policies to keep bad ads out of our systems – in fact in 2015 alone, we disabled more than 780 million ads for reasons ranging from counterfeiting to phishing. Ads for financial services are a particular area of vigilance given how core they are to people’s livelihood and well being.

In that vein, today we’re sharing an update that will go into effect on July 13, 2016: we’re banning ads for payday loans and some related products from our ads systems. We will no longer allow ads for loans where repayment is due within 60 days of the date of issue. In the U.S., we are also banning ads for loans with an APR of 36% or higher. When reviewing our policies, research has shown that these loans can result in unaffordable payment and high default rates for users so we will be updating our policies globally to reflect that.

This change is designed to protect our users from deceptive or harmful financial products and will not affect companies offering loans such as Mortgages, Car Loans, Student Loans, Commercial loans, Revolving Lines of Credit (e.g. Credit Cards).

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Will this be extended to the UK? And how do you think the payday loan companies will find their way around it? Or will they just appear in organic search? (The only comment when I wrote this was from someone from “Ace Cash Express” expressing great annoyance.)
link to this extract


Swiss watchmaking in March 2016: steep decline • Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry

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The deterioration in the trend of Swiss watch exports observed since July 2015 gathered pace in March. With a decline of 16.1% compared to last year their value totalled only 1.5bn francs (US$1.55bn), making these the lowest March figures since 2011. The scale of the downturn is also unusual, since we must go back to the crisis of 2009 to find rates of variation of this order.

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Gosh, that’s surprising. Wonder what could have caused that?
link to this extract


Apple Watch review, chapter 3: one year after • aBlogtoWatch

Ariel Adams:

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in my opinion, a pivotal change we have to look forward to is an always-on screen for the Apple Watch. TAG Heuer offered a low-power always-on state for their Connected watch, and while simple, the result was brilliant. The biggest weakness that the Apple Watch has is the fact that the screen is blank most of the time. Of course, there are very real and very unfixable reasons for this right now (battery life), but it prevents the “head” of the Apple Watch from having a face.

In the past, I have likened the face of a watch to a human face. Imagine looking at someone and seeing their face missing key elements like eyes, nose, and mouth. That is where all the personality and soul is conveyed, and a watch case without a face lacks a similar type of soul. The Apple Watch soul shines when the screen is activated, but I want more. I want the watch screen to be on all the time in some state, and I think that is at the heart of how to give the Apple Watch (and other smartwatches, for that matter) more personality. This is important not only for the wearer, but also other people seeing the watch on the wrist of the wearer. Above in this article, I talked about how I had a solution for giving the Apple Watch more personality. Well, it is this: not only offering an always-on state for the screen, but also allowing people to customize what you see on that screen. That is where a smartwatch can offer serious communicative value.

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Totally agree: this is what it really needs.
link to this extract


Conservatives accuse Facebook of political bias • NYTimes.com

John Herrman and Mike Isaac:

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The trending feature is curated by a team of contract employees, according to two former Facebook employees who worked on it and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements. They said they considered themselves members of a newsroom-like operation, where editorial discretion was not novel but was an integral part of the process.

Any “suppression,” the former employees said, was based on perceived credibility — any articles judged by curators to be unreliable or poorly sourced, whether left-leaning or right-leaning, were avoided, though this was a personal judgment call.

The perception of Facebook as a more conventional news operation opens it to a more familiar line of criticism, which has been mounted against news organizations left and right, large and small, for decades. According to a report last year by Pew, only 17% surveyed said that technology companies had a negative influence on the country. For the news media, that number was 65% — and rising.

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One senses a little schadenfreude at the NYT (and other publications) as Facebook endures exactly the same criticism they have done for years.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

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