Start up: Google Now not, the price of Oculus, Dropbox hack blocked, Amazon pricing re-examined, and more


Christmas bokeh! Look forward to finding out who got an iPhone 7 Plus under the Christmas tree. Photo by Chris Loyd Photography on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Non-binary. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google Now is dead: latest beta of Search app erases references to Google Now • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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It was never clear how Google Now would fit in alongside assistant, as both products were initially pitched as being about giving you contextual and predictive information before you knew you wanted it. But assistant is clearly the way forward, while Google Now is over four years old. But Now On Tap was a fair bit younger, having been announced at Google I/O 2015. This probably means the decision to de-brand Now was fairly recent. Given that Now On Tap’s reception among many users has been less than fantastic, and its recent redesign, it seems likely that the feature never really caught on in the way Google wanted it to.

Assistant would make far more sense as an umbrella term for all the various features Now has come to embody over the years, and Google’s use of the assistant branding in apps like Inbox and Photos made it look as though the “Now” name would never really break out of the Search app. Today, that seems essentially confirmed.

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The problem with Now On Tap was that it was hard to find, surely – plus it required Android Marshallow? You have to hold the home button (or spot where the home button would be), let the OS figure out what’s on the screen and do a Google Now search on it. (Typical breathless Verge piece explaining it.)

Now On Tap couldn’t be backported. It never reached anything like the majority of Android devices.
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Hands on with the iPhone 7 Plus’ crazy new Portrait mode • TechCrunch

Former professional photographer Matthew Panzarino:

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I’ll just refer back to my iPhone review to set the scene for how Apple is making Portrait mode work:

The depth mapping that this feature uses is a byproduct of there being two cameras on the device. It uses technology from LiNx, a company Apple acquired, to create data the image processor can use to craft a 3D terrain map of its surroundings.

This does not include the full capabilities of the Primesense chip Apple purchased back in 2013 (we have yet to see this stuff fully implemented), but it’s coming.

For now, we’re getting a whole host of other benefits from the two cameras, including “Fusion,” Apple’s method of taking image data from both the wide angle and telephoto lenses and mixing them together to get the best possible image.

We’re also getting Portrait mode, which launches today in developer beta and later this week in public beta.

The Portrait mode, which prominently displays a beta notification on first launch, resides to the right of the standard photo mode in your camera app. There is no zooming, digital or otherwise, in Portrait mode. Instead, the Portrait mode exclusively uses the 56mm lens to shoot the image and the wide angle lens to gather the perspective data that allows it to generate a 9-layer depth map.

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So you can pick any spot in a photo to be the “focus”, but unlike Huawei’s implementation you can’t then control the level of bokeh. But Panzarino is very impressed with this first pass. I wasn’t able to examine Huawei’s output (on a P9) in any detail; it looked clever on screen.
link to this extract


New report suggests Oculus Rift could be a tad pricey for the UK • T3

Dom Reseigh-Lincoln:

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“CONTEXT’s latest insight into the market shows that 34% of UK gamers are willing to spend up to £500 for their first VR headset,” says retail MD, Adam Simon. “However, this figure drops sharply to only 3% for the £500- £600 bracket. This is also mirrored by general consumers, of whom only 2% would meet Oculus’ asking price.”

“CONTEXT has been tracking the rapidly growing VR sector and recently conducted a huge European-wide consumer survey about attitudes towards the new technology, including opinions on Oculus and other manufacturers in the space,” he adds.

However, while that price point might be a little alienating for early adopters, Simon does agree the decision will ultimately work in Facebook and Oculus’ favour, adding: “By keeping the price out of reach of most of the general public, and focusing on the most committed Oculus fans, they are able to closely monitor demand, and control their supply chain accordingly.”

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link to this extract


Inside Google’s Internet Justice League and Its AI-powered war on trolls • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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Now a small subsidiary of Google named Jigsaw is about to release an entirely new type of response: a set of tools called Conversation AI. The software is designed to use machine learning to automatically spot the language of abuse and harassment—with, Jigsaw engineers say, an accuracy far better than any keyword filter and far faster than any team of human moderators. “I want to use the best technology we have at our disposal to begin to take on trolling and other nefarious tactics that give hostile voices disproportionate weight,” says Jigsaw founder and president Jared Cohen. “To do everything we can to level the playing field.”

Conversation AI represents just one of Jigsaw’s wildly ambitious projects. The New York–based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infra structure and engineer ing muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the Internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intract able jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.”

Cohen founded Jigsaw, which now has about 50 staffers (almost half are engineers), after a brief high-profile and controversial career in the US State Department, where he worked to focus American diplomacy on the Internet like never before. One of the moonshot goals he’s set for Jigsaw is to end censorship within a decade, whether it comes in the form of politically motivated cyberattacks on opposition websites or government strangleholds on Internet service providers.

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“End censorship”. But also “take on trolling and other nefarious tactics”. Are those two congruent? And also, doesn’t one man’s censorship look like another man’s removal of revenge porn/paedophile material/fomenting of radicalisation?
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Microsoft will ‘solve’ cancer within the next 10 years by treating it like a computer virus, says company • Independent.ie

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Microsoft says it is going to “solve” cancer in the next 10 years.

The company is working at treating the disease like a computer virus, that invades and corrupts the body’s cells. Once it is able to do so, it will be able to monitor for them and even potentially reprogramme them to be healthy again, experts working for Microsoft have said.

The company has built a “biological computation” unit that says its ultimate aim is to make cells into living computers. As such, they could be programmed and reprogrammed to treat any diseases, such as cancer.

In the nearer term, the unit is using advanced computing research to try and set computers to work learning about drugs and diseases and suggesting new treatments to help cancer patients.

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Hmm. Well. From January 2004:

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Spam will be a thing of the past in two years’ time, Microsoft boss Bill Gates has promised.

Spammers – senders of bulk e-mail that mostly offers dubious products or pornography – were innovative, he said.

However, a three-pronged strategy would soon stamp out the problem, he said in remarks at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

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Remind me, is spam still a thing that we have to deal with? Asking for a friend. On the other hand…
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Artificial intelligence reveals mechanism behind brain tumor • Scienmag

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Researchers at Uppsala University have used computer modelling to study how brain tumours arise. The study, which is published in the journal EBioMedicine, illustrated how researchers in the future will be able to use large-scale data to find new disease mechanisms and identify new treatment targets.

The last ten years’ progress in molecular biology has drastically changed how cancer researchers work. Instead of almost exclusively using different biological models, like cells, today large-scale statistical analyses are increasingly used to understand tumour diseases and find new therapies.

Researchers at Uppsala University, together with colleagues at the University of Gothenburg, Chalmers University of Technology and University of Freiburg, have developed a new algorithm, aSICS, that uses large amounts of data to suggest hypotheses about “what causes what” in a cancer cell.

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link to this extract


Dropbox hack blocked by Apple in Sierra • AppleHelpWriter

Phil Stokes previously explained how Dropbox uses a sneaky hack to get accessibility access, rather than the system dialog:

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With the release of the latest version of the Mac operating system, 10.12 macOS Sierra, it’s pleasing to see that Apple have fixed a bug I reported against El Capitan in October of last year, and wrote about on this blog here and here.

The TCC.db is now under SIP, which means hacking the Accessibility preferences is no longer possible.

The bug basically allowed anyone to circumvent the authorisation warning to place an app in the list of Accessibility apps in System Preferences > Security & Privacy. It still required sudo, but an app (Dropbox being the most high profile offender), that got your admin credentials in other ways could insert itself into Accessibility and make it almost impossible for the user to remove.

Users can still alter Accessibility in the normal way (through Sys prefs GUI), but trying to hack the sql database via Terminal now returns “Error: attempt to write a readonly database.”

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link to this extract


Is Amazon really ripping off consumers by promoting more expensive versions of products? • IB Times

Mary-Ann Russon:

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We found no evidence that Amazon UK was trying to make us pay more money for any product, no matter how popular or expensive, and in some cases, when the product was niche, it would only list the seller that had the product. Because it was rare, the user would need to pay whatever the seller chose to charge for shipping.

However, when it came to Amazon US, we had a completely different experience. We logged both accounts into Amazon US and proceeded to perform tests on the same products we searched for in the UK. There was no difference between the prices offered to Prime users and the prices offered to non-Prime users.

We tried to search for “Loctite super glue”, which was the example used by ProPublica as evidence of Amazon pushing for consumers to spend more money. We found that ProPublica was accurate in their assessment, in this case.

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Excellent bit of actual “let’s check it first” journalism. This is great work.
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Google backs off on previously announced Allo privacy feature • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

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Like Hangouts and Gmail, Allo messages will still be encrypted between the device and Google servers, and stored on servers using encryption that leaves the messages accessible to Google’s algorithms.

According to Google, the change was made to improve the Allo assistant’s smart reply feature, which generates suggested responses to a given conversation. Like most machine learning systems, the smart replies work better with more data. As the Allo team tested those replies, they decided the performance boost from permanently stored messages was worth giving up privacy benefits of transient storage.

The decision will also have significant consequences for law enforcement access to Allo messages. By default, Allo messages will now be accessible to lawful warrant requests, the same as message data in Gmail and Hangouts and location data collected by Android. The messages might not be there if the user had previously deleted them, or if the conversations took place in Incognito Mode — but in most cases, they will be. That leaves Google with much less danger of the kind of legal showdown Apple faced in San Bernardino and WhatsApp currently faces in Brazil.

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Allo is iOS-only at present. It’s meant to be a sort of “smart assistant”, though early reviews have been lukewarm. (Aren’t all of them these days?) Google’s position on repressive regimes is hard to square with its reluctance to take a hands-off approach to user data.
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The Coalition for Better Ads is destined for a glorious failure • Marketing Week

Mark Ritson is a columnist:

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The main reason people block advertising is not because of poorly conceived creative or annoying, data-heavy executions. It is because they hate advertising and prefer their media without it. In a recent survey of British ad blockers by KPMG, for example, almost half the sample (46%) said they would use an ad blocker because – and I quote – “they do not like advertising at all”.

In contrast, the Coalition believes that “better” advertising will reduce the adoption of ad blockers. They say that because they are all marketers and marketers are the only people on the planet that think people like advertising. They think that because of what psychologists call ‘post-hoc rationalisation’, or what we might also call ‘how the fuck could I go to work each day if I really admitted how much people hate what I do?’.

So you can see how this one will play out. The Coalition spends several million quid creating inane legislation that slightly improves online ads. At which point consumers, who still have their ad blocking software up in the right hand corner of their screen, completely ignore the whole charade and keep blocking ads. They will do that not because the Coalition will fail to improve online advertising, but because the only good ad for most consumers is the one they do not have to download and be distracted by while they consume digital media.

None of this is digital’s fault by the way. If consumers had a similar opportunity to block TV ads, they would jump on it. Oh, hang on, they do and they have.

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Ritson seems pretty good at hitting nails on the head.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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