Start up: Google’s Pixel plans, PINs in lights, Amazon zaps junk reviews, 4Chan near death?, and more

Factories. What are they good for? Photo by andreakw on Flickr.

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A selection of 14 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The team of men behind Rachel Brewson, the fake woman whose Trump-fuelled breakup went viral • Jezebel

Anna Merlan:


If you were one of the people who became a little bit emotionally invested in Rachel Brewson’s breakup with her boyfriend Todd—if you felt sorry for her, or infuriated, or thought they both seemed like self-involved jerks— you may be comforted to know that she doesn’t exist.

As a tipster pointed out to Jezebel, and as we confirmed in interviews with the people who wrote her into being, “Rachel Brewson” was fake, the product of an unusually involved internet marketing scheme that managed to strew blog posts, personal essays, and social media profiles across fairly well-trafficked sections of the Internet.

Brewson wasn’t a publicity stunt, but an attempt to make money. The character was created by an (all-male) team of internet marketers interested in pushing traffic back to Review Weekly, a site that relied on various internet monetization schemes to try to generate a profit. In the process, they created a bunch of flimsy fake characters to write posts, and an unusually detailed one: Rachel. “She” got published on a few big sites—xoJane, Thought Catalog, Elite Daily—appeared on TV (where the company hired amateur actors to play her and Todd), and left a trail of profiles that remain on the internet to this day.

In the end, Review Weekly was an expensive failure, according to its owner, who chose to fire the entire staff at the end of May. The website remains online, but is no longer publishing new material.

But Rachel’s main creator, marketing consultant Kenny Hyder, says the site continues to passively generate income. And he still prides himself on what a great job his team did bringing Brewson to life.


If 2016 were a fish, I’d throw it back.
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Exclusive: Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for U.S. intelligence – sources • Reuters

Joseph Menn:


Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company complied with a classified U.S. government directive, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said two former employees and a third person apprised of the events.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to a spy agency’s demand by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.

Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.


Good to see Menn back on top form. On the story, in the last paragraph: bet they did. Question is whether those providers complied.
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A personal Google, just for you • Google blog

Sundar Pichai:


When I look at where computing is heading, I see how machine learning and artificial intelligence are unlocking capabilities that were unthinkable only a few years ago. This means that the power of the software — the “smarts” — really matter for hardware more than ever before. The last 10 years have been about building a world that is mobile-first, turning our phones into remote controls for our lives. But in the next 10 years, we will shift to a world that is AI-first, a world where computing becomes universally available — be it at home, at work, in the car, or on the go — and interacting with all of these surfaces becomes much more natural and intuitive, and above all, more intelligent.

This is why we built the Google Assistant, which allows you to have a natural conversation between you and Google. It’s one Assistant that’s ready to help you throughout your day. The first instance appeared in our new smart messaging app Google Allo to help you in group conversations. But that’s just the beginning. We want to help you get things done in your world, across different places, contexts and situations. And that means building the Google Assistant and other amazing software into the hardware that you depend on every day.


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A technical follow-up: how we built the world’s prettiest auto-generated transit maps • Medium

Anton Dubrau of Transit, which makes the Transit app:



[Our transit map of showing line intersections was] Pretty good for a Version 1. Much better than Google, seeing as you can more or less tease out where each line is going. We were ready to roll out Transit Maps! And then… Apple Maps happened.
In the summer of 2015, after having worked on our maps for the better part of a year, we were finally ready to release our first version of Transit Maps. Then Apple rolled out their transit maps, and they were really pretty.

They instantly raised the bar for what transit maps should look like. In our drawings and designs, the end goal was something similar to (or better than) what Apple subsequently released, but we were planning to get there after releasing our Version 1.

Compared to Apple, our proposed Version 1 was kind of mediocre. Our Designer-CEO decreed that beating Google was not good enough — we also had to at least play in the same league as Apple.

After closer scrutiny, we hypothesized that Apple was drawing their maps manually. There were huge lags between the release of new cities, and there was something strangely off about the way the maps looked — as though they were drawn by humans, not computers. This meant that although our maps weren’t quite as pretty, our algorithm was still ahead of theirs.

At this point, we also knew that the hard part was behind us.


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Apple to launch trio of iPad Pros in spring 2017, including 7.9in mini model • Mac Rumors

Joe Rossignol:


Apple will ship three new iPad Pro models around Spring 2017, including 7.9in, 10.1in, and 12.9in models, according to Japanese blog Mac Otakara.

The report, citing “reliable sources,” said the 12.9in model will feature a True Tone display like its current 9.7in counterpart, using advanced four-channel ambient light sensors to automatically adapt the color and intensity of the display to match the light in the surrounding environment.

The 12.9in iPad Pro is also said to gain the 9.7in model’s same 12-megapixel rear-facing iSight camera and True Tone flash.

The smaller 7.9in model, which will succeed the iPad mini 4, will likewise include a Smart Connector, True Tone display, four speakers, and a 12-megapixel rear-facing iSight camera with True Tone flash, as Apple works to standardize features across its tablet lineup, according to the report.


A 10.1in model? Doesn’t quite ring true.
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Pixel, Galaxy, iPhone, oh my! Why pay a premium when every phone runs the same apps? • ZDNet

Jason Perlow:


It isn’t as if companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, and the others vying for our attention have not been expending resources and enduring long development cycles to make better products.

They have. There are key quantitative improvements in performance between this year’s models and those of prior years. The benchmarks tell us this, as does the spec creep.

The problem is that the mobile technology has now matured to a certain level where every single product at every single price point is now more than good enough to address every consumers’ key needs in almost every conceivable use-case scenario.

The hardware has now become completely commoditized, and the capabilities of these mobile chipsets and display technology have vastly outstripped the capabilities and functionality of the software applications that run on them.

We’ve seen this before, of course. It happened to the PC industry during the 1990s and the early 2000s. The commodity desktop PCs got so powerful – with the fourth- and fifth-generation x86 CPUs and the amount of memory and disk $600 to $800 could buy. It didn’t make any sense to purchase a more expensive model since real-world performance – using the same dozen or so core business applications that everyone used – was the same.

The majority of the apps couldn’t make use of the surplus resources, and there was little or no value added to distinguish one brand of PC from another.


Well, slightly dependent on operating system.
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US election: cyber attacks a certainty • UK Authority

Michael Cross:


Next month’s presidential election is the most divisive in living memory. It is also the one most certain to face a cyber attack – which could conceivably swing its outcome.

That’s the alarming consensus emerging in Washington DC as political commentators ponder the the consequences of a re-run over the “hanging chads” fiasco in Florida in 2000. Yet the technology picked to replace the old punchcard voting machines has its own vulnerabilities: in particular being open to invisible sabotage.

Potential attackers range from hostile governments – Russia has already attempted to alter election outcomes in Ukraine by targeting software used to aggregate votes – to foreign terrorist groups and home grown libertarian lone wolves.

In a series of reports called Hacking Elections Is Easy, the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), a US think tank, points out that cyber attack on different aspects of the election process does not require a sophisticated actors or technology.

“Any hacker with enough time, a basic ability to navigate Deepweb, and access to YouTube, can impact public perceptions, control political conversations, and undermine the democratic process,” the study warns.


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Behind the Pixel: Google’s first real threat to Apple’s iPhone • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman got the behind-the-scenes preview:


When [former Motorola boss Rick] Osterloh, 44, came on board in mid-April, he brought Google’s hardware groups into one division, shuttering projects he didn’t see contributing to Google’s future. Now the engineers and designers from Google Glass, Chromecast and Pixel all work together. Keeping them separate, he says, made it “hard to drive toward the goal of portfolio strategy and focus.” Reflecting long-held ambitions to build an Apple-style supply chain, the hardware division now has a supply-management team, drawing on the expertise of the Nest smart-home unit acquired by Google nearly three years ago.

Google declined to say how much it’s spending on the effort. However, Jason Bremner, a former Qualcomm Inc. executive who works on Google’s hardware products, put it in context. “Part of being the seller of record means that inventory, that supply chain risk — you know, hundreds of millions of dollars on the line on any given day — that’s on Google now,” he said.

Now that Google is designing phones itself, the company can at long last put together a product roadmap going out several years. For example, last month Burke was able to see a photo taken by a Google handset that won’t debut until next fall. That “would have never happened with Nexus,” he says. Going forward, more and more of the phones’ guts will be developed in-house. Burke says the company will eventually be able to ship its own custom “silicon,” a buzzword for customized processors that make devices work better.

It’s a very different setup from Osterloh’s previous Google gig, when he ran the Motorola division. “While we were part of Google, we were very arm’s-length,” he says. Now his team gets early access to the company’s advances in machine learning and innovations from the Assistant group. The Pixel phones will also be the first to run the next version of Android, Nougat 7.1, complete with Google tie-ins like pro camera effects, instant chat support, and a service that automatically frees up phone storage via the cloud. 


The Pixel isn’t even vaguely a threat to the iPhone: Google can’t turn on the manufacturing capacity to compete (Apple is the second largest maker of phones, not just smartphones, in the world), and people who are likely buyers of iPhones are not likely to turn to the Pixel instead. The key threat is to Samsung and more particularly LG and Sony’s high-end would-be buyers. The problem for all the Android OEMs, including Google, is that the premium Android market is much smaller than the iPhone market (which is premium).

The penultimate paragraph though with the mention of customised silicon is the part to note. How far down that road is Google looking to go? And why?
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Additional security and privacy risks of light sensors • Security, Privacy and Tech Inquiries

Lukasz Olejnik on how you could capture someone’s PIN in a banking app via a malicious app which captures data from the light sensor on their smartphone:


Light sensor data is not unambiguously related to PIN’s digits. It’s not that a particular PIN’s digit resembles a particular light level; the matter is more subtle. According to the report, the information leak is emanating from the user behavioral analysis. The employed threat scenario envisions users using a specialized application monitoring the typing on a touchscreen. The application is trying to trick users to reveal their use patterns (how they type) in an activity similar to PIN typing. The application tracks lighting conditions and the rate of light level change (timestamped) when the user is typing, for later analysis of the light level change rate (e.g. speed). Light level variations are typically related to subtle angle changes caused by slight differences of the way how the device is held. You know, when you type on a smartphone, it tends to move slightly.

Then, the application waits (or tricks the user to do so) for a banking application start. Lighting conditions are still monitored. But at this point, user’s use patterns (which affect the rate sensor readout changes) are already known. The research studied the mechanics of PIN deducing.

The image below (from the report) shows how particular PIN digits correlated with light level changes.

It is quite clearly seen that in this particular case, the digits 0 and 9 were related with higher light level readouts; they could be clearly distinguished from others. A machine learning algorithm would have no problems in classifying these events.


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Why are politicians so obsessed with manufacturing? •

Binyamin Appelbaum:


The manufacturing boom of the postwar years was an oddity, and there will be no repeat of the concatenation that made it happen: The backlog of innovations stored up during the Great Depression and World War II; the devastation of other industrial powers, Germany in particular, which gave the United States a competitive edge. Yet some parts of the formula that created the middle class may be possible to replicate. Unions played a large role in negotiating favorable work rules, many of which have since entered into law. Stronger unions — or federal regulators, who have increasingly replaced unions as the primary advocates for workers — could improve conditions in the service sector, too.

The enduring political focus on factory workers partly reflects the low profile of the new working class. Instead of white men who make stuff, the group is increasingly made up of minority women who serve people. “That transformation really has rendered the working class invisible,” says Tamara Draut, the author of “Sleeping Giant,” a recent book about this demographic transformation and its political consequences.

The old working class still controls the megaphone of the labor movement, in part because unions have struggled to organize service workers. Manufacturing was, logistically speaking, easier to organize. There were lots of workers at each factory, and most knew one another. Service work is more dispersed and done in smaller crews. Workers living in the same city and employed by the same retail chain, for example, would likely know only a handful of their compatriots. Fostering a sense of trust and shared purpose under these conditions is difficult.

At the same time, more and more men are plopping down on the sidelines of the economy. The Harvard economist Lawrence H. Summers estimates that by midcentury, one-third of men in their prime working years, between the ages of 25 and 54, will not be working.


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Samsung’s China smartphone sales expected to be hit amid turmoil from Note 7 recall • South China Morning Post

Bien Perez, Zen Soo and He Huifeng:


Demand for Samsung Electronics smartphones in mainland China are expected by analysts to decline fast, as the international recall of its Galaxy Note 7 model casts a pall on the company’s sales in the world’s largest mobile phone market.

Samsung’s turmoil from its first large-scale withdrawal of a smartphone is largely predicted to benefit rivals Huawei Technologies, Oppo Electronics, Vivo, Xiaomi and Apple on the mainland, according to analysts and Chinese retailers interviewed by the South China Morning Post.

Tay Xiaohan, a senior market analyst at technology research firm IDC, said Samsung smartphone sales in the Chinese mainland “have been stagnant in the past few quarters” amid intense competition from major Chinese brands.

“The [Galaxy Note 7] global recall will further affect Samsung’s performance and reputation in China in the second half of this year,” Tay said.


The irony being that the models sold in China weren’t affected by the battery problem (different supplier). But some Chinese have been offended that the phones weren’t recalled – as if they didn’t matter.

However, Note 7 users are loyal. It’s all the non-Note 7 users who are the problem for Samsung.
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Amazon bans reviews based on free or discounted products • Ars Technica

Mark Walton:


While Amazon isn’t removing older incentivised reviews, except for those it deems particularly excessive, it will now take action against any companies found distributing products for free in exchange for reviews. The online retail giant has taken a zero-tolerance stance to outfits found violating its rules before, suing companies that directly pay for fake reviews, and in some cases even suing the individuals that write them.

“Any attempt to manipulate Community content or features, including by contributing false, misleading, or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited,” reads Amazon’s updated community guidelines. “If you violate our Guidelines, we may restrict your ability to use Community features, remove content, delist related products, or suspend or terminate your account… Misconduct may also violate state and federal laws, including the Federal Trade Commission Act, and can lead to legal action and civil and criminal penalties.”

The only exceptions to the new rules are books—Amazon will “continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies”—and reviews that come from the Amazon Vine program. With Vine, Amazon (not the vendor or seller) asks reviewers to post opinions about new and pre-release products and does “not incentivise positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews, or even require a review to be written.” It also limits the total number of Vine reviews displayed for each product.


You’ll recall that it has been a problem. Let’s see how long it takes companies to work around this one.
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/qa/ – Winter is coming. – Question & Answer • 4chan

Hiroyuki Nishimura, who bought 4Chan a year ago:


Thank you for thinking about 4chan.
We had tried to keep 4chan as is.
But I failed. I am sincerely sorry.

Some notice there are no more middle ads and bottom ads on 4chan.
Ads don’t work well. So we reduced advertisement servers cost.
4chan can’t afford infrastructure costs, network fee, servers cost, CDN and etc, now.

4chan have three options.
-Halve the traffic cost
limit uploading image sizes
use slower servers.
close some boards

-Much more ads
pop-up / pop under ads
malicious ads

-More 4chan pass users
more features


Or read the easy explanation by Brianna Wu. TL;DR: 4Chan close to death.
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Microsoft just killed its awful fitness tracker • Gizmodo

Michael Nunez:


The imminent death of Microsoft’s fitness tracker shouldn’t be much of a surprise. When the original Band was introduced in late 2014, it received mixed reviews. Experts hoped the device would be one of the first health trackers consumers used regularly. The original Microsoft Band contained 10 sensors, which was significantly more than other fitness trackers from rivals like Fitbit and Basis included at the time. Microsoft also included powerful software to help people make sense of the data. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save the device. The official Gizmodo review said the original Microsoft Band colossally disappointing and “left plenty of room for improvement.”

It never got any better, either. When Microsoft released the Band 2 one year later, the company was entering an even more competitive marketplace.


Still don’t see that the new remodelled Microsoft will want to make wearables. Too competitive and too narrow a field if you don’t have other things to tie into.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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