Start up: the adtech vig, new Macs and Surfaces?, securing the IoT, the fingerprinted smart gun, and more

It’s like machine learning. Sorta. Photo by noodlepie on Flickr.

In London on October 18th? I’ll be giving a talk: “Social Networks and the Truth“:

How many people do you follow on Facebook or Twitter whose political views you fundamentally disagree with?

It’s probably in the single digits. Yet there are millions of them out there. So why aren’t you following them? And if you aren’t, does that make their views wrong – or yours?

What happens when an election cycle or a referendum runs around opposing camps of social media opinions? How important are news media in such a situation? And would you believe that being online is polarising us, rather than making us more willing to listen to other viewpoints?

This talk will explore that – and its consequences.

Tickets are limited; book now. £10 secures your place.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Deep-fried data • Idle Words

The wonderful Maciej Ceglowski, who runs Pinboard (which I use to compile these links each day, as it happens), gave a speech to the Library of Congress in September:


Today I’m here to talk to you about machine learning. I’d rather you hear about it from me than from your friends at school, or out on the street.

Machine learning is like a deep-fat fryer. If you’ve never deep-fried something before, you think to yourself: “This is amazing! I bet this would work on anything!”

And it kind of does.

When I was in college, friends who worked the snack bar conducted extensive research along these lines. They would deep-fry cheese, candy, pens, their name tag. And all of it came out tasting great.

In our case, the deep-fryer is a toolbox of statistical techniques. The names keep changing—it used to be unsupervised learning, now it’s called big data or deep learning or AI. Next year it will be called something else. But the core ideas don’t change. You train a computer on lots of data, and it learns to recognize structure.

These techniques are effective, but the fact that the same generic approach works across a wide range of domains should make you suspicious about how much insight it’s adding.

And in any deep frying situation, a good question to ask is: what is this stuff being fried in?


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Machine logic: our lives are ruled by big tech’s ‘decisions by data’ • The Guardian

Julia Powles:


With artificial intelligence and machine learning, technologies that are fast becoming very significant actors, “we are in another moment of irrational confidence”, says renowned technology and culture researcher Kate Crawford.

Aiming at population-level predictive gambles, these technologies filter who and what counts, including “who is released from jail, what kind of treatment you’ll get in hospital, the very news that you see”. How we respond is “the biggest challenge facing us for the next 50 years”.

Crawford and three other women at the leading edge of digital scholarship and activism are headlining the 17th annual Association of Internet Researchers conference in Berlin. Their resounding message is that we have an urgent problem with “the machine logics that bind human and non-human rulers together”.

Crawford points to the recent international outrage at Facebook’s censorship of a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph as the tip of the iceberg. This is a high-profile example on top of “a much larger mass of unseen hybrids of automated and semi-automated decision-making,” she says. “They are embedded in back-end systems, working at the seams of multiple data sets, with no consumer-facing interface. Their operations and rules are not apparent to us.”


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Where did the money go? Guardian buys its own ad inventory • Mediatel

David Pidgeon:


In worst case scenarios, for every pound an advertiser spends programmatically on the Guardian only 30 pence actually goes to the publisher.

The revelation, announced by the Guardian’s new chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, at the Automated Trading Debate on Tuesday (4 Oct), means a host of adtech businesses operating within the supply chain are extracting up to 70% of advertisers’ money without being able to quantify the value they provide to the brand.

“There’s leakage. The money that goes in is not the same as the money that goes out,” Nicklin said.
“There are so many different players taking a little cut here, a little cut there – and sometimes a very big cut. A lot of the money that [advertisers] think they are giving to premium publishers is not actually getting to us.”

Nicklin said the Guardian had purchased its own ad inventory to try and assess where the money was spent across the entire supply chain and saw, in some instances, that only 30 pence was making it back to the publisher.


And you wonder why publishers struggle online. That sort of skimming is unsustainable.
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Inside Apple’s new audio adapter • iFixit

Jeff Suovanen:


The takeaway seems to be that in some areas, the sound quality does measure a bit worse from the adapter than we might be accustomed to. For instance, when playing an uncompressed 16-bit audio file on the iPhone 6s, the dynamic range dropped from 99.1 dB at the headphone jack to 97.3 dB at the adapter. Though keep in mind, this slightly lower measurement is still higher than the theoretical maximum you get from a compact disc (which is 96 dB). So, is it a difference you are likely to notice? If you sit in a quiet room with a really, really good pair of headphones … and you’re a canine, the answer is: maybe.

But it appears Apple’s engineers did their job, and this tiny adapter performs better than most people expected or even thought possible.


No. That is not the takeaway. You literally cannot hear the difference. You can barely measure it.
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A 19-year-old just built the first fingerprint-reading smart gun • WSJ

Geoffrey Fowler:


[Investor Ron] Conway takes to the podium to announce he has found a solution: the 18-year-old sitting near him, smiling politely but confidently in his well-tailored suit. His name is Kai Kloepfer and he’s from Colorado, a state that’s had more than its share of mass shootings. “He is the Mark Zuckerberg of guns,” Conway tells the room.

Kloepfer has spent the past four years designing a handgun with a fingerprint reader built into the grip, and he deferred his acceptance to MIT after winning a grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in 2014. His startup, Biofire, is just a few months from a live-firing prototype, which, assuming it works, will be the first gun to unlock like an iPhone.

“Congratulations,” Conway says to Kloepfer. “You are going to save America. You are going to save lives. The gun companies won’t tell you, but the tech industry will.”


Uses a fingerprint reader that’s a spinoff from the colossal smartphone business in Shenzhen. About 20,000 youth suicides, unintended injuries and deaths in the US each year come from “improperly secured guns”. 250,000 guns stolen each year; 62% of 33,000 gun deaths are suicides, committed with guns not belonging to the victim.
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We need to save the internet from the Internet of Things • Motherboard

Bruce Schneier:


The security of our computers and phones also comes from the fact that we replace them regularly. We buy new laptops every few years. We get new phones even more frequently. This isn’t true for all of the embedded IoT systems. They last for years, even decades. We might buy a new DVR every five or ten years. We replace our refrigerator every 25 years. We replace our thermostat approximately never. Already the banking industry is dealing with the security problems of Windows 95 embedded in ATMs. This same problem is going to occur all over the Internet of Things.

The market can’t fix this because neither the buyer nor the seller cares. Think of all the CCTV cameras and DVRs used in the attack against Brian Krebs. The owners of those devices don’t care. Their devices were cheap to buy, they still work, and they don’t even know Brian. The sellers of those devices don’t care: they’re now selling newer and better models, and the original buyers only cared about price and features. There is no market solution because the insecurity is what economists call an externality: it’s an effect of the purchasing decision that affects other people. Think of it kind of like invisible pollution.

What this all means is that the IoT will remain insecure unless government steps in and fixes the problem.


DDOS attacks like the one on Brian Krebs’s site are indeed a sort of pollution; an externality, in economics lingo. And you need governments to regulate externalities like this, since a tort lawsuit against the maker of an insecure device will probably fail – seller goes bust, is in a different country, etc.
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Microsoft schedules its autumn hardware event for October 26 • ZDNet

Mary Jo Foley:


The theme of the event this year is news around “the next chapter in the Windows story”. I assume this means there will be news around Windows 10 Redstone 2. Sources also are saying to expect OEM devices, Microsoft Surface device news, and some gaming-related updates at the event.

A number of us Microsoft watchers are expecting the company to launch a Surface All-in-One type device – likely with a Surface keyboard and mouse – at the event. I’ve also heard Microsoft will be highlighting a bunch of its OEM partners’ Windows 10 devices there.

Will there be a new Microsoft Band or a Microsoft-branded phone launched on Oct. 26? No and no…my sources continue to say no new Microsoft phones of any kind are coming this year, either.


Microsoft is going after smaller and smaller markets. The market for all-in-ones is smaller even than that for premium laptops.
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Apple’s rescheduled earnings call could suggest new Mac announcement around October 27 • 9to5Mac

Ben Lovejoy:


When the largest company in the world changes the date of a quarterly earnings call, there has to be a good reason. It’s not the sort of thing you do on a whim.

Apple has done this once before, and there was indeed a very good reason, which it shared with us: to allow senior Apple execs to attend the memorial service of long-standing board member Bill Campbell.

This time, however, no explanation has been offered, and enquiries by reporters have received no response. I’m with Philip Elmer-DeWitt in thinking that there’s one very plausible explanation.

That explanation is that Apple has brought forward its quarterly earnings call to make way for a keynote two days later. And the event we’re all expecting this month is the launch of new Macs.


About time: that’s a month into the final quarter, with some machines which haven’t been significantly updates in years. The Mac Pro hasn’t ever been updated; it came out in the same year as iOS 7. Remember that?

Although I’d wager that all the new models will use USB-C charging. (Note Apple’s press release around the revamped MacBook in April, which it called “our vision for the future of the notebook”.) And that’s going to make obsolete millions of MagSafe chargers around the world. And they can’t be converted.
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US government: Russia behind hacking campaign to disrupt US elections • Ars Technica UK

Sean Gallagher:


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security today jointly charged that the Russian government was responsible for directing a series of intrusions into the networks of US political organizations and state election boards. In a “joint security statement”, officials from the two agencies declared they were “confident” that the government of President Vladimir Putin was behind the hacks and the publication of data obtained from them—some of it doctored—specifically to impact the results of the upcoming US elections.

In a joint statement, agency officials asserted the following:


The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.


The officials also accused Russia of being behind attacks on some state election board systems.


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Samsung knew a third replacement Note 7 caught fire on Tuesday and said nothing • The Verge

Jordan Golson:


Another replacement Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has caught fire, bringing the total to three this week alone. This one was owned by Michael Klering of Nicholasville, Kentucky. He told WKYT that he woke up at 4AM to find his bedroom filled with smoke and his phone on fire. Later in the day, he went to the hospital with acute bronchitis caused by smoke inhalation.

“The phone is supposed to be the replacement, so you would have thought it would be safe,” Klering told WKYT, saying that he had owned the replacement phone for a little more than a week. “It wasn’t plugged in. It wasn’t anything, it was just sitting there.”

The most disturbing part of this is that Klering’s phone caught fire on Tuesday and Samsung knew about it and didn’t say anything. And actually, it gets worse than that.

Samsung asked Klering if they could take possession of the phone and he said no, though the company did pay to have it x-rayed — but the damning evidence comes in the form of a text message that Klering inadvertently received from a Samsung representative:

“Just now got this. I can try and slow him down if we think it will matter, or we just let him do what he keeps threatening to do and see if he does it.”


Now, ok, this looks like a smoking gun. (Oops, sorry.) But: why wouldn’t Klering let Samsung take the phone to check it? That’s quite odd; you’d think, if he has chosen the same phone *twice*, he would want it checked over and, presumably, replaced.

Hence I do wonder if Klering was demanding some sort of extra payment from Samsung, saying that otherwise he would take it to the press, but that Samsung was insisting he just hand over the phone so it could decide what, if any, recompense was due. Perhaps that’s what the “threat” is. And Klering made good on it. What’s not crystal clear though is whether this truly was a replacement Note 7, or an original one, or what.

But it’s getting worse: AT+T suspended all sales of the Note 7 and so has T-Mobile; Ars Technica says the count of “safe” Note 7s catching fire is up to five.

Samsung may be overlooking that these things are slow to catch on with consumers – but then very hard to put out.
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Uber’s self-driving cars are already getting into scrapes on the streets of Pittsburgh • Quartz

Alison Griswold:


While it would be easy to write off these incidents [a self-driving car seen going the wrong way up a one-way street; being hit from behind by the following car, which is always the following car’s fault] as minor mishaps, both suggest how much work Uber has left to do on its autonomous software, even as it’s begun putting real passengers in the cars. One reason Uber’s vehicles are currently traveling only a small area of Pittsburgh is because those are supposed to be the streets its engineers have carefully mapped and taught the cars about. If that’s really the case, no self-driving car should be turning the wrong way down a one-way street—nor should its safety driver, who is in theory the final check on the car’s autonomy.

Driverless vehicles also tend to operate in a cautious, hyper-logical manner and follow the rules of the road to a tee. Uber, again via its mapping efforts, has tried to prepare its cars to avoid certain tricky situations they might run into. On one street near the ATC in Pittsburgh, Uber engineers have instructed the self-driving cars to hang close to the curb because trucks making turns are more likely to swerve into the oncoming lane. By that same logic, the cars should also know certain intersections are hotspots for rear-ending accidents and be on the alert to avoid them, much as a savvy human driver would be. Uber’s approach differs from that of other companies such as Nvidia, which have focused on teaching computer systems to drive in a more adaptive, human-like way—by being introduced to situations a few times, and then applying what they learn to other encounters on the road.


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Twitter sale process said almost dead as suitors bow out • Bloomberg

Alex Sherman, Sarah Frier, and Brian Womack:


Twitter Inc.’s sales process is almost dead, as top bidders lose interest amid pressure from their investors, according to people familiar with the matter.

Twitter once saw interest from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Inc. and Walt Disney Co., all of which consulted with banks on whether to acquire the social-media company. Now all of those suitors are unlikely to make a bid, the people said. On Friday, Twitter had planned to have a board meeting with outside advisers on a sale but canceled, one of the people said.

At Salesforce’s investor conference this past week, several investors talked to Chief Financial Officer Mark Hawkins and other executives about how they weren’t pleased with the idea of a Twitter buyout, according to another person familiar with the matter. They made their feelings known during small huddles near the stage and other areas around the meeting room. High-profile investors also e-mailed Hawkins, who forwarded the messages to his CEO and the board.


What options are left? Stagger on as before? Private equity buyout? But with no obvious route to profitability in sight, it’s hard to see how it would be attractive to a private equity buyout.
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Here come the Galaxy S8 rumors: no physical button, “full screen” display, and dual camera • AndroidAuthority

Bogdan Petrovan:


According to the report, Samsung is planning to use a so-called “full screen display.” In other words, the plan is to all but eliminate the top and bottom bezels (the side bezels are already very thin), which would supposedly create a very minimalist and immersive experience.

This one ties in with the elimination of the home button – if Samsung really drops the physical home button, it would make a lot of sense to reduce the bottom bezel as much as possible.  For a reason why, just look at the negative reaction to the empty top and bottom bezels of the Pixel and Pixel XL.

In late 2015, Samsung was rumored to make all sides of the Galaxy S7, including the top and bottom, curved. That didn’t pan out, but Samsung may use the idea on the Galaxy S8. Expanding the curve to the two other sides would keep the S8 ahead of competitors, including the next iPhone, which is rumored to feature an all-new design.

Rumor has it that Samsung has already made up its mind on using a dual camera on the back of the Galaxy S8. The question is whether Samsung will use a two-lens/one-module design or a two-lens/two-module arrangement. According to the report, Samsung could opt for a 16MP/8MP setup.


Basically, anything Apple is rumoured to do next September (or has done this September), Samsung will do next February/March. It’s probably galling as hell for Apple’s designers to find their ideas leaking like this.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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