Start up: products without money, Chromebooks that’ll miss Android, who’s killing US biometric law?, and more

Just another day in American media, according to Michael Crichton. Photo by idccollage on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. See? It’s already Tuesday. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The non-monetizable product blind spot • The Information

Sam Lessin on why there is no great calendaring, or digital address book, or news reader app:

»The problem with afterthoughts in the context of big companies is that the best people don’t want to work on them, and whenever there is a tradeoff between the core business and an afterthought, the afterthought loses.

There are plenty of products people want, but they’re not good businesses. It is because they fail as businesses that they can’t be built as products, not the other way around.

So, for something like iCloud, or Apple Music, it’s no surprise that they struggle to produce good consumer products. And it is no surprise that Apple’s attempts in some categories without obvious business models—like productivity apps—have failed too.

Could a great music service or better cloud services help Apple sell more phones? Of course. However, dollar for dollar and moment for moment, these services are not the easiest or next best way for Apple to sell more of the hardware that makes them who they are.

Google is, of course, the other giant to reference in this discussion. On one hand, with its massive search-advertising cash cow, historical “20% time” policy and extreme freedom for engineers, Google has supported more products with no immediate business benefit than almost any big company I can think of.

Even Google, however, ultimately shut down Google Reader rather than invest the money and time to make it great. And while Google’s mail and calendar products are the best of the options available, the company is clearly under-investing in them relative to what they could.

Why? Because Google gets paid for high-intent clicks from search. Products that don’t drive the core economics of the business are easy to start, but hard to make succeed in the culture and framework of business decision making.


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New wave of malvertising leverages latest Flash exploit • Malwarebytes Labs

Jérome Segura:

»The setup for these malvertising attacks relies on a combination of techniques that start with the fraudulent advertiser choosing a victim, typically a legitimate website in the retail, or legal business. The goal is to use someone else’s identity to appear legitimate when approaching ad networks.

The ad banners are designed professionally by the miscreants and then hosted along with the ad code on shadowed domains. The owners of said domains are completely unaware that a subdomain has been created on their hosting platform, let alone that it is serving malicious ads.

Here is the interesting part though. The ads are typically clean of any malware for anyone trying to manually verify them. The JavaScript code looks benign no matter how many times you refresh the page or rotate IP address. This is because the rogue version of the JavaScript is served conditionally, with the proper referer, user-agent, sometimes even your screen resolution, and several other parameters.

Once a genuine user is identified (a victim that happened to browse a particular publisher serving that ad), another series of checks – which we call fingerprinting – is performed to ensure that only those that are likely to get infected are indeed redirected to the Angler exploit kit.


Flash! Again! (Via Rob Leathern.)
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Why not all Chromebooks will get Android apps • PCWorld

Chris Hoffman:

»Google is adding Android app support to Chrome OS, but your Chromebook might not get it. Despite Google’s promise of a five-year lifespan for Chromebooks, most Chromebooks released more than two years ago will be left out.

Google published a list of Chromebooks, Chromeboxes, and Chromebases that will get Android apps. This isn’t necessarily a complete list yet, and new devices may be added.

If you want to be one of the first people to get your hands on this feature when it debuts in the developer channel with Chrome version 53 in June 2016, you’ll need an Asus Chromebook Flip, Acer Chromebook R11, or Google Chromebook Pixel (the 2015 model only).

A variety of other Chromebooks—primarily ones less than two years old—will receive Android app support later in 2016. But older Chromebooks—even very capable ones—are left out.


Suspect the arrival of Android apps will drive a fair number of new purchases, though.
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Hackers stole 65 million passwords from Tumblr, new analysis reveals • Motherboard

Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai:

»On May 12, Tumblr revealed that it had just found out about a 2013 data breach affecting “a set” of users’ email addresses and passwords, but the company refused to reveal how many users were affected.

As it turns out, that number is 65 million, according to an independent analysis of the data.

Troy Hunt, a security researcher who maintains the data breach awareness portal Have I Been Pwned, recently obtained a copy of the stolen data set.

Hunt told Motherboard that the data contained 65,469,298 unique emails and passwords. (Tumblr did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the figure).


They were hashed with random bytes and salted with an unspecified algorithm. So not really a risk – but the emails that go with them are being circulated. Then again, what’s the value of an email? The list of 65 million is being sold for $150.
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Google’s DeepMind tried to justify why it has access to millions of NHS patient records • Business Insider

Sam Shead with the followup on this story:

»New Scientist questioned why Google DeepMind needs access to so much data on so many people, including those who have never experienced kidney problems, for the app, which is called Streams.

Streams — used by Royal Free clinicians in three separate trials since December 2015 — is designed to detect acute kidney injury (AKI), a condition that kills more than 1,000 people a month. It uses an algorithm developed by the NHS.

A Google DeepMind spokeswoman provided Business Insider with the following statement:


It’s difficult to predict who will develop acute kidney injury, which is why the NHS national algorithm is applied across a wide spectrum of patients. For example, fit 25-year-olds can develop AKI as a consequence of an appendicitis as much as an 80-year-old with a hip fracture, and it’s essential to pick all these cases up early.

In this case, the sharing of information is both necessary and proportionate to the purposes: failure to share a historical data set effectively would carry risk of avoidable harm if a patient presented to the Royal Free London and information could not be effectively presented to a clinician. There has been no sharing of identifiable information that is not relevant to direct clinical care in the context of this application. At all times, DeepMind Health acts only as a data processor, and the Royal Free retains control over the data.



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Anti-choice groups use smartphone surveillance to target ‘abortion-minded women’ during clinic visits • Rewire

Sharona Coutts:

»Last year, an enterprising advertising executive based in Boston, Massachusetts, had an idea: Instead of using his sophisticated mobile surveillance techniques to figure out which consumers might be interested in buying shoes, cars, or any of the other products typically advertised online, what if he used the same technology to figure out which women were potentially contemplating abortion, and send them ads on behalf of anti-choice organizations?

The executive—John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising—set to work. He put together PowerPoint presentations touting his capabilities, and sent them to groups he thought would be interested in reaching “abortion-minded women,” to use anti-choice parlance.

Before long, he’d been hired by RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in Northern California, as well as by the evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services…

…What Flynn realized is that he could use the same technologies to infer that a woman might be seeking an abortion, and to target her for ads from anti-choice groups.

“We can reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S.,” he wrote in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February. The Powerpoint included a slide titled “Targets for Pro-Life,” in which Flynn said he could also reach abortion clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, and high schools in the United States and Canada, and then “[d]rill down to age and sex.”

“We can gather a tremendous amount of information from the [smartphone] ID,” he wrote. “Some of the break outs include: Gender, age, race, pet owners, Honda owners, online purchases and much more.”

Flynn explained that he would then use that data [using geo-fencing] to send anti-choice ads to women “while they’re at the clinic.”


Which is why you’d want a smartphone that doesn’t allow advertisers to track you via its ID or other data.
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I am not my internet personality • The Cut

Julieanne Smolinski:

»It is part of the modern condition to pose and posture online, and it can be very fun to make fun of the various ways in which people make asses of themselves. But the unfiltered nature and open playing field of social media make it easy to forget that it’s all a performance. In person, Michael was great! Really and truly. His terrible use of social media was part deliberate schtick and part stone-cold, childlike buffoonery, but it was all very lovable. (You know, like Entourage.) Demi adored Michael the person but eventually, she realized that keeping tabs on him made it harder for her to separate the real guy from the Scarlett Johansson Her guy.

The gap between public and private personae used to be the exclusive concern of entertainers, but now anybody who wants to can live Martin. Plenty of prestige bloggery has been devoted to analyzing the phenomenon of “social-media happiness fraud,” which we’ve somehow elevated to Russian-novel levels of agony: Those people posing in bikinis? Don’t feel too envious of them, we’ve been told, for they are dead inside, too.

The ability to “research” people this way has already been catastrophic for casual dating, as we’ve all been forced to reduce other human beings to a series of forensic clues so as not to be murdered or have a boring two hours at a restaurant. While certainly expedient, the newish convention of deciding whether you like somebody before you have ever been in their physical presence is both depressing and a teensy bit unfair.


This gap between someone’s online personality and their offline one is too infrequently observed.
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Apple prepping thinner MacBook Pros with OLED strip above keyboard, Touch ID for Q4 • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

»According to a new note from reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo at KGI Securities and corroborated by our sources, Apple plans to introduce a dramatically overhauled MacBook Pro later this year. Kuo says the device will have a new “thinner and lighter” design with design cues taken from the 12-inch MacBook, as well as Touch ID support and a new OLED display touch bar above the keyboard.

Kuo’s report explains that the MacBook Pro updates are the “brightest spot for Apple’s 2016 rollouts” and will come to both the 13-inch and 15-inch models sometime during the fourth quarter of this year.

The OLED display touch bar will replace the physical function keys along the top of the keyboard, while the design will adopt new metal injection molded hinges as reported earlier this year. Additionally, the refreshed MacBook Pros are said to feature USB-C support and Thunderbolt 3.

In addition to upgrading the 13in and 15in MacBook Pros, Apple will also introduce a new 13in MacBook similar to that of the 12in Retina model that was just upgraded with performance boosts. According to Kuo, Apple plans to make the MacBook Air the entry-level option, while the MacBook will become the mid-tier choice and the MacBook Pro will remain the high-end variant.


No Retina display on the MacBook Air? But I suppose Apple is looking to create a gap between the Air, and the “MacBook” and the Pro.
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2008: Michael Crichton’s 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction now looks on target • Slate

Jack Shafer in May 2008:

»In 1993, novelist Michael Crichton riled the news business with a Wired magazine essay titled “Mediasaurus,” in which he prophesied the death of the mass media—specifically the New York Times and the commercial networks. “Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote.

The mediasaurs had about a decade to live, he wrote, before technological advances—”artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page”—swept them under. Shedding no tears, Crichton wrote that the shoddy mass media deserved its deadly fate.

“[T]he American media produce a product of very poor quality,” he lectured. “Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk.”


Shafer reckoned Crichton was going to be vindicated:

»As we pass his prediction’s 15-year anniversary, I’ve got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It’s gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren’t going extinct tomorrow, Crichton’s original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.


Now at the 23-year mark, and you could call it either way. The NYT isn’t dead, though; and most print papers are still going.
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A lesson on infrastructure from the Anderson Bridge fiasco • The Boston Globe

Larry Summers and Rachel Lipson:

»Sometimes small stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

This glacial pace of implementation does not reflect the intrinsic technical difficulty of the task. For comparison, the Anderson Bridge itself was originally completed in just 11 months in 1912. General George Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging in six months as American soldiers crossed the Rhine to win World War II. And even modern-day examples abound; for instance, in 2011, 14 bridges in Medford were fixed in just 10 weekends. In contrast, the lapses exposed by the Anderson Bridge project hold key lessons for America’s broader inability to solve its infrastructure problems…

…[The] delay is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines. Perhaps, at a deeper level, it is the failure of citizenry to hold government accountable for reasonable performance — a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines.


Summers, of course, was former secretary of the US Treasury. This examples points to a worrying problem for the US: it is simply becoming overwhelmed by its own complexity.
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Someone’s trying to gut America’s strongest biometric privacy law • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

»For years, the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act has been a headache for any tech company working with facial recognition. It’s a simple law, requiring a person’s explicit consent before a company can make a biometric scan of their body. In the eight years since the law was first passed, those scans have become a central part of products like Google Photos, Snapchat filters, and Facebook’s photo-tagging system. All three companies are currently facing lawsuits for allegedly violating the Illinois law, producing biometric face prints without notifying Illinois citizens.

Now, Illinois’ law is facing sudden and quiet changes that would dramatically reduce its power.

Yesterday, Illinois State Senator Terry Link quietly proposed a revision to the biometrics act, attached to a long-delayed bill concerning unclaimed property procedures.


Which would, as it happens, end the three lawsuits at once. Facebook indicated it likes the revision.
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The week in business • The New Yorker

James Surowiecki:

»A familiar argument for low state income taxes holds that, if rates are too high, wealthy people will simply move. The fundamental assumption behind this argument is that rich people are able to pick up and go when conditions no longer suit them. But a new study, lead-authored by Cristobal Young, a sociology professor at Stanford University, finds that this image is largely a myth. The authors looked at every tax return filed by millionaires between 1999 and 2011 (some 3.7 million unique filers), and found that only 2.4 per cent of millionaires move in a given year, a lower rate than that of the general population. The study also found no evidence that millionaires are less likely to live in states with high income taxes.


Inconvenient truth.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

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