Start up: Chromebooks rising, why airport queues grow, how Shapeshift was hacked, Apple v AI, and more

Your smartphone’s apps and software uses distraction like a magician – but is that a good thing for you? Photo by ThaQeLa on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Unlucky for some (principally those who work in base 12). I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

For the first time, Google beat Apple in US PC sales — and that’s really bad news for Microsoft • Business Insider

Matt Weinberger achieves the trifecta of all three of the big names in a headline:

»Today, two very important things happened for the future of the PC as we know it.

First: For the first time ever, low-cost Google Chromebook laptops outsold Apple’s Macs during the most recent quarter, analyst firm IDC tells The Verge.

Manufacturers including Dell, Lenovo, and HP sold over 2 million Google-powered Chromebooks combined, versus around 1.76 million Macs, IDC estimates.

Second: those same Google Chromebooks are getting full access to Android’s Google Play store, opening the door for those laptops to run a significant portion of the 1.5 million Android apps out in the wild.

For Apple, it’s not necessarily great news, but it’s not the end of the world, either. Quarter after quarter, Macs have shown sales growth, bucking the overall shrinkage of the PC industry. And Apple has always been a company that’s content to completely and profitably own a small piece of a much larger pie.

But for Microsoft, it means that the pressure is on — Google’s slow-but-steady attack is bearing some real results, and it’s not great news for Windows 10.


Weinberger’s right; that 2m is over 10% of the US market (of 13.6m). And PC OEMs get better margins on Chromebooks (no Windows licence to pay). And soon those machines will be attractive to younger users because they’ll be able to run Android apps. (In passing: potentially a problem for Apple unless it can get iOS apps to run on Macs.)
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Tech support locker scam poses as failed Microsoft Update • The Register

John Leyden:

»Cybercrooks have put together a new scam that falls halfway between ransomware and old school browser lockup ruses.

The new class of “tech support lockers” rely on tricking users into installing either a fake PC optimiser or bogus Adobe Flash update. Once loaded the malware mimicks ransomware and locks users out of their computers. Unlike Locky, CryptoWall and their ilk it doesn’t actually encrypt files on compromised Windows PCs, however.

Jérôme Segura, a senior security researcher at Malwarebytes, said “tech support lockers” represent a class of malware more advanced than browser locks and fake anti-virus alerts of the pre-ransomware past.

“This is not a fake browser pop up that can easily be terminated by killing the application or restarting the PC,” Segura writes in a blog post. “No, this is essentially a piece of malware that starts automatically, and typical Alt+F4 or Windows key tricks will not get rid of it.”

One strain of tech support locker employs a subtle piece of social engineering trickery by waiting until a users restarts their computer before confronting users with a fake Windows update screen. Users are told their computers can’t be restarted normally supposedly because of an “expired license key”. Thereafter a screen locks a user out of their computer in an attempt to trick marks into phoning a support number, staffed by scammers.


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The strange science of why airport security lines spiral out of control • NY Mag

Drake Baer:

»Queues are governed by Little’s Law, which states that the number of items in a queuing system (the length of a queue) is equal to the average waiting time per item (how long each interaction takes) times the number of items arriving per unit time (how many people/things are coming in).

For queues with “servers” — someone handling transactions with whomever’s at the front of the line — the server needs to have some idle time, otherwise the queue, according to the math, could grow without limit. For a queue with only a single server, the rule of thumb is about 15 percent to 20 percent idle time. If there’s lots of servers (like a call bank with hundreds of people taking calls), then they don’t need as much idle time, because there’s less of a chance of every server being occupied at once, causing the line to build and leading to the inevitable viral videos.

A lot of this, Larson says, has to do with the profoundly human quality of variability. If queues were mechanical — like in a well-run factory, where the time of arrival and the time of service for each transaction were highly predictable — then a server could be super busy and queues still wouldn’t form.

But people are neither predictable nor identical in how they approach airline travel.


Damn people.
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The hack at ShapeShift • Money And State

Erik Vorhees:

»Last fall, we realized the “minimum viable product” server architecture established originally for ShapeShift was insufficient. We needed a professional to join the small team, and craft a scalable, and secure, server apparatus upon which our technology could grow.

We hired such a person, and patted ourselves on the back for our proactive decision. On paper, he looked great; the reference we called confirmed his prior role and responsibility. He’d even been into Bitcoin since 2011/2012 and had built miners in his room. Awesome. We’ll call this new employee Bob… indeed his real name starts with a B.

Over the next months, Bob built and managed ShapeShift’s infrastructure. He did okay, nothing special, but we were content to have a professional taking care of devops at least well enough to enable our engineers to build upon the architecture.

In the first quarter of this year, as the market discovered what we already knew – that our world will be one of many blockchain assets each needing liquidity with the other – exchange volumes surged at ShapeShift. Ethereum was on the rise, specifically. Our infrastructure was not ready for the pace of growth. It was like riding a bicycle upon which jet engines suddenly appear full-thrust.

Unfortunately, Bob did little to be helpful. He puttered around aimlessly while the team worked long hours to keep the ship together.

Scratch that, actually, Bob was not aimless.

He was preparing to steal from us.


This is a riveting read – not short, but thorough and worthwhile.
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Avoiding BlackBerry’s fate •

»Becoming a major big-data AI services company doesn’t happen completely in secret and suddenly get released to the world, completed, in a keynote. It’s a massive undertaking, spanning many years, many people, and a lot of noticeable interaction with the world. It’s easier to conceal the development of an entire car than a major presence in AI and services.

Google is extremely well-placed for where they think the puck is going. They could be wrong — these AI services could be a socially awkward fad like Google Glass or a tonedeaf annoyance like Clippy. Google launches a lot of weird, geeky, technologically impressive things that go nowhere.

If Google is wrong, and computing continues to be defined by a tightly controlled grid of siloed apps that you poke a thousand times a day on a smooth rectangle of manufacturing excellence, Apple is fine. They’re doing a great job of what computing is today, and what it will probably continue to be for a long time.

But if Google is right, that’s a big problem for Apple.


Apple is pretty busy in AI and machine learning systems; it has been hiring. I think there’s a more subtle threat to Apple: what if you don’t use “things” to interact with these systems any more?
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Mirrors blamed for fire at world’s largest solar plant • Associated Press

»A small fire shut down a generating tower Thursday at the world’s largest solar power plant, leaving the sprawling facility on the California-Nevada border operating at only a third of its capacity, authorities said.

Firefighters had to climb some 300 feet up a boiler tower at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California after fire was reported on an upper level around 9:30 a.m., fire officials said.

The plant works by using mirrors to focus sunlight on boilers at the top of three 459-foot towers, creating steam that drive turbines to produce electricity.

But some misaligned mirrors instead focused sunbeams on a different level of Unit 3, causing electrical cables to catch fire, San Bernardino County, California fire Capt. Mike McClintock said.

David Knox, spokesman for plant operator NRG Energy, said it was too early to comment on the cause, which was under investigation.


Pretty dramatic fire – it melted lots of stuff.
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How technology hijacks peoples’ minds — from a magician and Google’s design ethicist • Medium

Tristan Harris, who leaves you in no doubt from this article’s first line, which is “I’m an expert in how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities”:

»If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.
If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. Relative to other kinds of gambling, people get ‘problematically involved’ with slot machines 3–4x faster according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Shull, author of Addiction by Design.

But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:
•When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
•When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
•When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
•When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
•When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.


That’s only the addiction side, and some of that is accidental; what Harris points to is that much of what gets us glued to distractions is intentional by the companies involved (including, as he points out, YouTube, owned by his ex-employer). His website is
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Modular phone Ara to finally launch • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

»The Ara project was originally announced in October 2013 and was part of the acquired Motorola Mobility business. Since then it has become part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) division.

Despite periodically putting out videos touting Ara’s possibilities, however, little has been heard about the project and many assumed it was going the way of so many other Google projects: into the trash.

Not so. And ATAP Head of Creative, Blaise Bertrand, said at Google’s I/O conference on Friday that the phone will launch to developers in the fourth quarter of this year, with a consumer version put out sometime in 2017.

The phone even has a website, complete with more videos, so it must be happening.


Except, as one of the commenters points out, the modularity won’t extend to the screen, GPU, CPU, RAM or sensors. So basically all the things that were meant to make this useful if modular won’t be modular.
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Google built a tiny radar system into a smartwatch for gesture controls • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»”How are you going to interact with an invisible computer?”

When you hear a question like that posted in a conference room at a major tech corporation like Google, you expect you’re going to be in for an hour or two of technophizing with few tangible results at the end of it.

But then somebody sets a smartwatch on the table in front of you. You snap your fingers in the air just a couple of inches away from it. And the digital watch face starts spinning.

Ivan Poupyrev, who posed that question (and many more) works at Google’s ATAP [Advanced Technology and Projects] research lab and is the technical project lead for Project Soli, which is designed to prove that we can embed tiny radar chips into electronics so that we can use minute hand gestures to control the digital world around us. Why on earth would you want radar in a smartwatch?

To prove that you can interact with an invisible computer. Duh…

…By comparison to the electronics and the machine learning algorithms, actually deciding which gestures should do what seems easy. But if you think about it a minute, maybe it’s not. With a touchscreen, you can see buttons and sliders. With physical switch, you can feel the snick when you flick it on. But if there’s nothing but air, how do you guide the user?

“Is everything going to have its own interface?” Poupyrev asks. “Is every switch, every smart sprinkler, or cup going to have its own? It’s going to create confusion.” One of Soli’s goals is to create a common design language that’s easy to learn but flexible enough to control a lot of things.


I got the impression, reading the article, that neither Bohn nor the Googlers could figure out what the killer use case for this technology would be – or even if there is one.
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December 2015: How Theranos misled me • Fortune

Roger Parloff, in December 2015, after the Wall Street Journal exposed how Theranos wasn’t doing what it claimed, tried to figure out why he had come away convinced, for an article in 2014, that it was doing all those things – including “more than 200” types of blood test:

»After Theranos’s Oct. 22 statement, I contacted officials there to inquire how many tests it had actually been commercially performing by proprietary means in June 2014, when I had reported that it was offering more than 200. A spokesperson acknowledged to me that it was fewer than 200, but declined to specify how many. She said she’d send a statement.

The company’s statement arrived Nov. 3. “As discussed when you visited Theranos,” it said, “Theranos could perform hundreds of tests (more than 200) using its proprietary technologies. The reports you reviewed at Theranos covered many of those tests Theranos developed for use with finger-stick samples.”

(The company had, indeed, provided me in the Spring of 2014 with what it said were—and what looked to be—validation studies for scores of different diagnostic tests, though, in truth, I lacked the expertise to assess their significance.)

The statement then went on to address my followup question, which was basically: If you were capable of doing 200-plus tests using your proprietary methods, why weren’t you in fact doing them?

Here, with trademark, Theranos-ian opacity, is the reply: “Over time, we’ve been optimizing our clinical lab to bring up tests that are more commonly ordered, and in some cases move resources off the proprietary tests that are less commonly ordered to get to a point where the ordering patterns we are seeing can all be accommodated through our finger-stick technology.”

Got that?


Parloff’s walk back through his notes, and Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes’s opaque replies, are a laudable attempt to try to figure out what happened. It’s something that can – has – happened to many journalists: you think you understand it, and you let them whitewash you. Only by repeatedly asking “just explain that to me in more detail” do you finally get to the core. Or in Theranos’s case, the void where the core should be.
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Guns replaced with selfie sticks • Tumblr

For example:

Though the Schwarzenegger one that heads the site actually captures something about Arnie that had always been only implied.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

4 thoughts on “Start up: Chromebooks rising, why airport queues grow, how Shapeshift was hacked, Apple v AI, and more

  1. A thing to note about Chromebooks is that they remain a US Education only phenomena. They have been looked at elsewhere and rejected, because although they are cheap, they do not benefit students’ education in comparison to Tablets and Computers.

  2. Yeah, I have yet to see a Chromebook with my own eyes here in London. No doubt US schools are saving a lot of money on them – and no doubt they are a great, lightweight, low-energy, good enough computing platform for kids learning word processing, basic spreadsheet, website creation or even some coding. Much better than the Thomson MO-5 they had in my school, back in the day. And this could really spread to schools around the world too. But until that day, Chromebooks are a pretty rare sight across the pond.

    • One of my children is at a school where they’re using Chromebooks. Don’t underestimate them. (I think I’ll write a post on this, for somewhere – likely techpinions.)

  3. Marco Arment’s piece is (as always) interesting but seems (as sometimes) a touch hyperbolic. Apple are, as you point out, very much ensconced in the AI space.

    Amazon’s Echo, Alexa and the Google equivalent are a novelty and geeks with disposable income will have fun playing around with, but for most people using the phone / tablet device they already have with them at home and outside will make far more sense – whether by tapping or speaking.

    One of the main claims to fame for these voice activated, only at home, devices is speaking to ask for music to be played. To me this is the ultimate example of something that is fun just because it is new. A visual way of choosing music is much better – scrolling through a list of music enables you to be reminded of music you really like but wasn’t at the forefront of your mind.

    Interaction with technolgy isn’t an either-or scenario. Some interactions will be more suited to voice, some via touch and scroll or some via gesture and maybe even text input! But user choice will, I hope, always be an option.

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