Start up: AirBnB’s race problem, solar prices crater, modern porn, AirPods teardown (sorta), and more


“All I did was say my name was Jennifer Null.” Photo by Random McRandom 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.

Response to Airbnb’s report on discrimination • Edelman.org

(Professor) Ben Edelman:

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This month Airbnb released a report (PDF) investigating discrimination by its hosts against guests (including racial minorities and others), assessing the evidence of the problem and evaluating proposed solutions. The accompanying announcement offers lofty principles—”creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere.”

In contrast to the company’s prior denials, Airbnb now admits the problem is urgent: “discrimination must be addressed”; “minorities struggle more than others to book a listing”; “some members of the community did not receive the timely, compassionate response they expected and deserved when they reported instances of discrimination”; Airbnb’s nondiscrimination policy was not widely known, within or outside company. This much is beyond dispute.

While Airbnb’s report is a step in the right direction, it does little to address the crucial subject of how to actually fix the problem of discrimination. Indeed, the report proposes actions of uncertain or unproven effectiveness.  At the same time, the report quickly dismisses a simpler alternative response—removing guest photos and names from booking requests—which would be far more likely to succeed. Meanwhile, the report completely fails to defend the legal gamesmanship by which Airbnb avoids litigation on the merits when consumers complain about Airbnb, and the report equally fails to defend Airbnb’s continued prohibition on users conducting research to uncover and measure discrimination for themselves.

This article offers my critique.

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Edelman is good at critiquing the subtle discrimination that big and small tech companies do. He pointed out the racial discrimination among AirBnB lettors back in December 2015; it’s still valid.
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New record low solar price in Abu Dhabi – costs plunging faster than expected • Ramez Naam

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The price of solar power – in the very sunniest locations in particular – is plunging faster than I expected. I’ve been talking for years now about the exponential decline of solar power prices. I’ve often been called a wide-eyed optimist. Here’s what those projections (based on historical learning rates) look like.

In fact, if anything, my forecasts were too conservative. The solar prices I expected have been smashed by bids in the Middle East and in Latin America. I will need to update the model above in a future post.

The latest record is an incredibly low bid of 2.42 cents/kwh solar electricity in Abu Dhabi. That is an unsubsidized price.

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If there’s anything to give us a little hope, it’s this: allied to electric cars, the almost unlimited supply of silicon (sand is plentiful), you could get towards a future where we use a great deal less fossil fuel.

Equally, this puts the crazily high price that the UK government has agreed to buy electricity from the new Chinese-built Hinkley C nuclear reactor – 9p per kWh, or about 12 cents/kWh – into perspective. It would almost be cheaper just to pay for solar panels on all the UK’s household and factory roofs.
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These unlucky people have names that break computers • BBC Future

Chris Baraniuk:

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Jennifer Null’s husband had warned her before they got married that taking his name could lead to occasional frustrations in everyday life. She knew the sort of thing to expect – his family joked about it now and again, after all. And sure enough, right after the wedding, problems began.

“We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again.

Instead, she has to call the airline company by phone to book a ticket – but that’s not the end of the process.

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And you thought “Robert’); DROP TABLE Students;” was a made-up name. (Of course the XKCD cartoon is worth the second hit of its alt text.)
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Apple still leads in smartwatch sales; sector growth slow • Kantar Worldpanel

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“In the three months ending July 2016, 47% of wearable sales in the US occurred in the smartwatch category, versus the more basic fitness bands,” said Lauren Guenveur, Consumer Insight Director for Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. “Apple continues to dominate this segment with a 33.5% share, although that lead shrank slightly in the last three months as the market awaited the Apple Watch Series 2 announcement. The EU4 countries show a similar trend, with 38.6% of all sales coming in the smartwatch category, with Apple leading at 31.8%.”

“Looking ahead, 9.3% of the US-based non-owners we surveyed said they intend to purchase a wearable in the next 12 months, which came in slightly below the 11.3% figure from Great Britain,” Guenveur continued. “September 7th’s unveiling of the Apple Watch Series 2 showed Apple addressing the key considerations cited by those planning to buy, including GPS, one of the most-desired functionalities, and waterproofing, the most-desired feature.”

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link to this extract


Making sense of modern pornography • The New Yorker

Katrina Forrester:

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The majority of the world’s [porn] tube sites are effectively a monopoly—owned by a company called MindGeek, whose bandwidth use exceeds that of Amazon or Facebook. Its C.E.O. until recently was a German named Fabian Thylmann, who earned a reported annual income of a hundred million dollars; he sold the company while being investigated for tax evasion.

The millions of people using these sites probably don’t care much about who produces their content. But those who work in porn in the United States tend to draw a firm line between the “amateur” porn that now proliferates online and the legal adult-film industry that took shape after the California Supreme Court ruled, in California v. Freeman (1989), that filmed sex did not count as prostitution. Since then, the industry has been based in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, where its professional norms and regulations have mimicked its more respectable Hollywood neighbors. In “The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford), Shira Tarrant explains how that industry works in the new age of Internet porn, and sets out to provide neutral, “even-handed” information about its production and consumption.

It’s not an easy task.

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But hey, someone’s got to do it. At least it was even-handed rather than.. ok, I’ll stop.
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Airpods – a speculative teardown • LinkedIn

Nick Hunn is chief technology officer of WiForce:

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Companies have developed a number of proprietary ways to ensure [sound signals, especially music, in separate Bluetooth earbuds] are synchronised. The first was from Cambridge Silicon Radio (now part of Qualcomm), who developed a method where one chip receives the stereo signal, then separates out the left and right and resends one of the channels to a Bluetooth chip in the other earbud. They included synchronisation signals, so that the audio output of both chips could be coordinated in time. You also need to do this if one earbud is a music player, streaming data to the other ear, which is a particularly difficult use case. Others have streamed over Bluetooth A2DP to both earbuds and tried to use Bluetooth low energy to send synchronisation signals between the ears. Others have done the same thing using Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI). Some have even attempted to stream audio between earbuds using NFMI.

The problem with all ear-to-ear communication is that the head is remarkably effective in blocking 2.4GHz radio propagation. Designs which fit snugly within the ear have real problems in getting a signal across. The bigger the earbud, the easier this is, as you can include a bigger antenna, but the best solution is to put the antenna outside the ear. Apple’s design does exactly that. By locating the antenna in the long white battery and microphone boom, it moves it closer to the jaw where there’s a lot less attenuation from one side of the head to the other. So I surmise they’re using A2DP to stream audio from the phone to each Airpod and probably using BLE control signals between them to synchronise the audio rendering. So there’s no need for NFMI…

…So why would Apple make [the W1] chip? Developing a wireless chip with this spec isn’t cheap – it will probably cost at least $10m with a similar amount going on the stack. It is just a peripheral chip, which will never go into a phone, so the volumes are not that high. But it is interesting that Apple emphasised that this is their first wireless chip, in a tone suggesting it won’t be the only one. My guess is that Apple wants to incorporate Bluetooth and Wi-Fi into their next generation of processors, as that’s what their competitors are doing. Wireless can be difficult, so it’s a big step to do that in one go. Far better to design the wireless chip and evaluate it in an entirely new product category, as well as forcing one of your subsidiaries to use it. That way you get to test the chip as well as getting useful feedback for your next generation of earbuds.

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This is the smartest thing you’ll read all week, and it contains a great deal about Bluetooth technology that wouldn’t be obvious. And he’s right – the longer tabs of the AirPods mean they can communicate through flesh (your neck) rather than bone (your skull).
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Yahoo is expected to confirm massive data breach, impacting hundreds of millions of users • Recode

Kara Swisher:

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While sources were unspecific about the extent of the incursion, since there is the likelihood of government investigations and legal action related to the breach, they noted that it is widespread and serious.

Earlier this summer, Yahoo said it was investigating a data breach in which hackers claimed to have access to 200 million user accounts and was selling them online. “It’s as bad as that,” said one source. “Worse, really.”

The announcement, which is expected to come this week, also possible larger implications on the $4.8 billion sale of Yahoo’s core business — which is at the core of this hack — to Verizon. The scale of the liability could be large and bring untold headaches to the new owners. Shareholders are likely to worry that it could lead to an adjustment in the price of the transaction.

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Turns out it was 500 million account details in 2014 by a suspected “state-sponsored actor”. Hard to defend against that. I’ve been getting malware emails from hacked Yahoo accounts for months now. No idea if it’s connected.
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The Galaxy Note 7 recall has nothing to do with removable batteries • SamMobile

“Deidre R” on the biggest of the Samsung-watching sites:

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The batteries being shipped in the Galaxy Note 7 are faulty (at least some of them are; Samsung has never said that all the currently-shipped phones have faulty batteries, though mass hysteria can never be contained, unfortunately). The batteries are faulty because of issues within the battery itself. Nothing has been said to confirm that Samsung’s “sealing” the battery itself, or the battery and the phone together, are causing the conflict that is resulting in explosions worldwide. The issue has been found within the battery cells, an issue that mandates using a different, non-faulty battery that doesn’t suffer from the same defect.

This is the issue, but removable battery fanboys are switching topics, throwing out the real issue and planting a smokescreen from a different discussion. The topic concerns the batteries being defective, but removable battery fanboys want to get you off topic because they still can’t accept that removable batteries are going the way of the dodo and that, contrary to what they like, the old way of battery charging has been replaced with newer, more sophisticated methods of doing so.

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“Removable battery fanboys”? Truly we have begun to segment the world into ever-smaller niches. What I find fascinating here, though, isn’t the fake row about whether the fault is removability (obviously, it’s in manufacture) but how what used to be near-religious dogma among, uh, boosters of Android devices (removability of batteries trumps the iPhone’s non-removability) has morphed into one where of course you don’t want to be able to swap the battery out.

But then, we have always been at war with Eastasia. Ever since the Galaxy S6.
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Mode Media collapse: the inside story • Business Insider

Nathan McAlone and Eugene Kim:

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From the winding freeway that links Silicon Valley with San Francisco, the giant Mode Media sign gracing the company’s headquarters was a hard-to-miss proclamation alerting passing drivers to an internet success story with a rich, $1bn valuation.

But on the 11th floor of the gleaming building last week, the mood among employees was sour.

Those gathered in the office and patched in through a crackly teleconference suddenly learned that they had no more jobs, no more health insurance coverage, and no more access to the company email system. Mode Media, founded in 2003 and once known as Glam Media, was shutting down. Oh, and please hand in your laptops on the way out.

People were stunned and shocked, and the management team’s final Q&A session with the troops didn’t help.

Someone asked about severance, one former Mode employee recounted. John Small, the COO, simply responded: “There is no severance. There is no Cobra. There is no company.”

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Great reportage – though there’s a lot of fingerpointing every which way about quite what went wrong. Programmatic advertising (aka adtech) seems to have been a key element in the downfall.
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You’re not alone: 51% of Amazon Echo owners have it in the kitchen • Recode

Jason Del Rey:

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Amazon’s Echo voice-controlled speaker can perform more than 3,000 skills today thanks to its Alexa technology, but the most common use case is still simply setting a timer, a recent survey of early adopters found.

And that makes sense when you consider that about half of Amazon Echo owners — 51%, to be exact — surveyed place the device in their kitchen. The second most popular location for the smart speaker is the living room, with about one out of three using the device in that gathering space.

The findings come from a survey of about 1,300 smartphone owners who have used voice-controlled virtual assistants from companies like Apple, Google and Amazon. Of that group, 180 respondents — or about 14% — said they own an Amazon Echo. The survey was a partnership between Experian and the market research firm Creative Strategies.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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