Start up: the wearable PIN leak, bitcoin’s split, chatbot psychology, Facebook’s gun problem, and more

Counterfeits are a growing problem on Amazon. Photo by priceminister on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Oops! Wearables can leak your PINs and passwords • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»Collaborative research conducted by a team from the department of electrical and computing engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Binghamton University in New York State, has demonstrated how a wearable device such as a smartwatch could end up compromising a user’s PIN thanks to the motion sensing data it generates.

The team combined wearable sensor data harvested from more than 5,000 key entry traces made by 20 adults with an algorithm they created to infer key entry sequences based on analyzing hand movements, applying the technique to different types of keypads (including ATM style and Qwerty keypad variants) and using three different wearables (two smartwatches and a nine-axis motion-tracking device).

The result? They were able to crack PINs with 80% accuracy on the first attempt, and more than 90% accuracy after three ties… Ouch. Albeit, I guess you can say wearables are useful for something then.«

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Bitcoin ‘miners’ face fight for survival as new supply halves • Reuters

Jemima Kelly:

»As the bitcoin price has risen, as transaction numbers have grown and as the computers have become so specialized that they can only perform the function of bitcoin mining, a whole industry has emerged.

It can be profitable if firms are able to keep their expenses low. But the costs of running these machines, which cost around $1,800 each, and keeping them cool are fiendishly high.

[Bitcoin miner Marco] Streng reckons that, on average, it costs about $200 in electricity, including cooling power, to mine one bitcoin. Equipment, rent, wages and business running costs are on top.

On Saturday, all else being equal, the halving of the reward will double that cost, to $400, leaving a small margin for profit at the current exchange rate of around $640 per bitcoin.


The shakeout is likely to favour Chinese miners, and big ones; electricity costs make up about 90-95% of mining costs so you need to be in Iceland or similar to benefit.
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The psychology of chatbots • Psychology Today

Dr Liraz Margalit:

»There are power differences in many real-life relationships. Power refers to a capacity of influencing another’s behavior, making demands and having those demands met (Dwyer, 2000). When interacting with bots, people expect to have more power than the other side, to feel they can control the interaction and lead the conversation to whatever places they feel like.

Unconsciously this makes them feel better about themselves and gain back a sense of control over their lives. In other words, in order to boost our self-esteem, we have a hidden desire to hold at least one power-driven relationship in our life. There is no better candidate for this relationship than chatbots.

But in developing robots that are specifically designed to be companions, people experience artificial empathy as though it were the real thing. Unlike real humans, who can be self-centered and detached, chatbots have a dog-like loyalty and selflessness. They will always be there for you and will always have time for you.

The combination of intelligence, loyalty and faithfulness is irresistible to the human mind. Being heard without having to listen to the other person is something we implicitly crave. The danger is that such interactions with chatbots could lead to a preference among some for relationships with artificial intelligence rather than with fallible and sometimes unreliable human beings.


Imagine immersive VR plus a chatbot that always seemed to obey you. It would probably be irresistible to many people.
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Waiting for Gödel • The New Yorker

Siobhan Roberts on the man who came up with the Incompleteness Theorem (if you don’t know what it is, read the piece; if you do, read the piece too):

»A mathematician is said to be a machine for turning coffee into theorems, and at that Gödel excelled, although he said that the coffee in Vienna was wretched. For Peter O’Hearn, an engineering manager at Facebook and professor at University College London, the incompleteness “wow moment” was fuelled by visits to the brewpub during graduate school. O’Hearn is the co-recipient of this year’s Gödel Prize—he and a colleague, Stephen Brookes, invented concurrent separation logic, a revolutionary proof system for computer software. “Gödel’s theorem has a major impact on what all computer scientists do,” he told me. “It puts a fundamental limit on questions we can answer with computers. It tells us to go for approximation—more approximate solutions, which find many right answers, but not all right answers. That’s a positive, because it constrains me from trying to do stupid things, trying to do impossible things.”


If you’ve never read Gödel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, please do.
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Did a study really find there aren’t racial disparities in police shootings? Not so fast. • Vox

German Lopez:

»Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s new study… analyzed data from several police departments across the country to measure racial differences in police use of force. Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox reported:

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.

But diving deeper into the study, those conclusions are based on some fairly shaky ground. Specifically, the data the study uses only looks at racial biases after a police officer engages with a suspect. That excludes a key driver of racial biases in policing: that police are more likely to stop black people in the first place, producing far more situations in which someone is likely to be shot. The study also looks at a fairly limited number of police departments, meaning its findings may not apply nationwide.


It’s good that there is available data; it’s bad that the topic has to be addressed. In the UK there have been similar complaints about “stop and search” as being racially driven – and, sometimes, leading to deaths in custody.
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Live footage of shootings forces Facebook to confront new role • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Sydney Ember:

»Facebook is confronting complexities with live videos that it may not have anticipated just a few months ago, when the streaming service was dominated by lighter fare such as a Buzzfeed video of an exploding watermelon. Now Facebook must navigate when, if at all, to draw the line if a live video is too graphic, and weigh whether pulling such content is in the company’s best interests if the video is newsworthy.

“There are a handful of companies at the moment in a position to offer a live-streaming service where individual broadcasts are easily discoverable and shareable,” said Jonathan L. Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard University. “It just puts companies in positions they weren’t designed to deal with well.”

In a Facebook post on Thursday before the Dallas police shootings, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, wrote about Ms. Reynolds’s live broadcast. While the images of Mr. Castile dying “are graphic and heartbreaking,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote, such videos also “shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day.” He did not address what Facebook’s greater role in policing that content will be in the future.


Turns out to be tricky to be the world’s broadcaster. Facebook probably thought it would all be exploding watermelons. More likely it’s going to be a lot more brutal.
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Pokemon Go and business model innovation • Tech-thoughts

Sameer Singh:

»At the moment, Pokemon Go’s monetization model is fairly pedestrian -gamers can buy in-game virtual goods to enhance gameplay. However, more interesting avenues open up if it is successful in expanding beyond Pokemon fans. Since the game’s mechanics require players to travel to specific locations, sponsored locations are poised to become a massive revenue opportunity. Local businesses could pay to become a sponsored PokeGym or just become havens for rare Pokemon. Based on the foot traffic we have already seen at “hot” Pokemon Go locations, this could become a reality sooner than we expect. Of course, sponsored locations aren’t a unique revenue model and have been used by companies like Foursquare before. However, the efficacy of sponsored locations is entirely dependent on the user base and engagement of the service in question. Pokemon Go (and Niantic’s future games) will certainly have the upper hand here.


I’m going to go out grumpily on a limb here and say that Pokemon Go will not expand past its enthusiast market. Then the question is: is there any AR game that adults would want to play?
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Amazon is full of Chinese counterfeits and they’re driving out legit goods • Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:

»When Amazon decided to allow Chinese sellers to direct-list their products on the service (rather than going through domestic importers), it was seen as a defensive move against Alibaba, their deep-pocketed Chinese rival and vendor of everything from legit gadgets to crime supplies.

The older model was less efficient at getting Chinese goods to western customers, but it was also an important filter for counterfeits, because the domestic importers were easier to track down and punish for the worst offenses.

Now Amazon is filling up with counterfeits, a term that can mean several things:

* A near-identical (or identical) knock-off, sometimes even made in the same factory as the original goods, and sold out the back door

* Factory rejects that failed inspection

* Low-quality fakes that look like originals, but are made from inferior or defective materials or suffer from defective/shoddy manufacturing

In late 2015, there were a spate of warnings about knockoff sex toys on Amazon made from toxic materials that you really didn’t want to stick inside your body. Now this has metastasized into every Amazon category. Sometimes its clothes and other goods that have weird sizing, colors, or poor construction. Sometimes its goods that generate no complaints, but are priced so low that the legit manufacturers can’t compete, and end up pulling out of Amazon or going bust.


There’s also a first-person account of these effects at CNBC, showing that it’s putting American companies out of business:

»Whaley still counts on Amazon for 90% of her revenue but she’s actively trying to drive traffic to her own website and partner with other retailers. She’s lost all trust in Amazon.


Amazon wants to be “The Everything Store”. But as Theodore Sturgeon so aptly put it, 90% of everything is crap.
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Inside the secret group for gun owners banned from Facebook • Forbes

Matt Drange (of the Forbes staff, rather than a “contributor”):

»His name is Chuck Rossi, and he’s a director of engineering at Facebook. He’s also one of the company’s most prominent gun enthusiasts, who, by his own account, has trained hundreds of fellow employees to shoot pistols. More recently, Rossi has taken on a new, unofficial, role: advocate for gun groups on Facebook.

For months, Rossi has harnessed his technical expertise and internal connections to help gun groups get reinstated after they were shut down for violating Facebook’s new ban on gun sales. This has put Rossi at the epicenter of a behind-the-scenes battle between gun enthusiasts and proponents of comprehensive background checks, who have been busy reporting to Facebook groups that appear to violate the company’s policy.

While Rossi’s stated purpose is to give the groups a chance to comply with the site’s rules and bring back those pages dedicated to conversations about guns rather than transactions, he has, perhaps unwittingly, undermined Facebook’s efforts to eliminate unregulated gun sales through the site. Some of the groups Rossi helped to reinstate have continued to be havens for gun sales. Many have taken the opportunity to move from “private,” which allows anyone to search for and request access to the page, to “secret,” an unlisted setting which makes it difficult for anyone not already a member to find the groups, let alone view the content in them.


Underground gun sales continue to happen on Facebook. I wouldn’t be surprised if exactly the same happens in the UK.
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How technology disrupted the truth • The Guardian

Katharine Viner:

»The brazen disregard for facts did not stop after the referendum: just this weekend, the short-lived Conservative leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom, fresh from a starring role in the leave campaign, demonstrated the waning power of evidence. After telling the Times that being a mother would make her a better PM than her rival Theresa May, she cried “gutter journalism!” and accused the newspaper of misrepresenting her remarks – even though she said exactly that, clearly and definitively and on tape. Leadsom is a post-truth politician even about her own truths.

When a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and “facts” that are not. The leave campaign was well aware of this – and took full advantage, safe in the knowledge that the Advertising Standards Authority has no power to police political claims. A few days after the vote, Arron Banks, Ukip’s largest donor and the main funder of the Leave.EU campaign, told the Guardian that his side knew all along that facts would not win the day. “It was taking an American-style media approach,” said Banks. “What they said early on was ‘Facts don’t work’, and that’s it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

It was little surprise that some people were shocked after the result to discover that Brexit might have serious consequences and few of the promised benefits. When “facts don’t work” and voters don’t trust the media, everyone believes in their own “truth” – and the results, as we have just seen, can be devastating.

How did we end up here? And how do we fix it?


Viner is editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and you can tell that – like other journalists – she is finding the way in which the ground of “truth” is shifting under our feet very alarming.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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