Start up: Apple v Samsung supremely, the trouble with Age Verification, Anandtech on iPhone, and more


An Airbus A300 cockpit. Note: contains hidden assumptions. Photo by Jexweber.fotos on Flickr.


Why not come to 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.

A few tickets left; £10 secures your place.


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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google warns more than a dozen Russian journalists and activists about ‘government-backed attackers’ • Global Voices

Kevin Rothrock:

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More than a dozen Russian journalists and activists received a strange warning from Google earlier today, notifying them that “government-backed attackers” may be “trying to steal” their passwords. According to the security alert, Google says it “can’t reveal what tipped [it] off because the attackers will take note and change their tactics.” The company says these attacks happen to “less than 0.1% of all Gmail users.”

According to opposition activist Oleg Kozlovsky, at least 16 people—including Bellingcat researcher and RuNet-Echo contributor Aric Toler—have received warnings from Google. Kozlovsky says he’s been alerted, along with Transparency International Vice President Elena Panfilova, former Moscow city council member Maksim Kats, journalist Ilya Klishin, and others.

Alexey Shlyapuzhnikov, a security consultant for Transparency International, says the hackers were targeting, in part, three domains belonging to the NGO, as well as the email addresses of staff at regional and international offices.

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Just another day in 2016.
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Apple-Samsung iPhone patent feud leaves U.S. top court struggling • Reuters

Andrew Chung:

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The $399m penalty stemmed specifically from Samsung’s violation of three Apple patents on the design of the iPhone’s rounded-corner front face, bezel and colorful grid of icons that represent programs and applications.

While the justices signaled a willingness to reduce the potentially huge penalties imposed for ripping off someone else’s patented design, some expressed skepticism over how, in practice, juries could figure out the importance of a specific design trait in a product in order to calculate damages.

“If I were a juror, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

Several justices struggled with how they would devise a test for lower courts and juries to use to determine design patent damages.

Using as an example the Volkswagen Beetle’s unique automobile body contour, Justice Elena Kagan suggested it might be difficult for a jury to decide how much damages to award based on a theoretical patent infringement of its shape, when that trait might be the main factor driving consumers to buy it.

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Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster • The Guardian

Tim Harford:

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It is possible to resist the siren call of the algorithms. Rebecca Pliske, a psychologist, found that veteran meteorologists would make weather forecasts first by looking at the data and forming an expert judgment; only then would they look at the computerised forecast to see if the computer had spotted anything that they had missed. (Typically, the answer was no.) By making their manual forecast first, these veterans kept their skills sharp, unlike the pilots on the Airbus 330. However, the younger generation of meteorologists are happier to trust the computers. Once the veterans retire, the human expertise to intuit when the computer has screwed up could be lost.

Many of us have experienced problems with GPS systems, and we have seen the trouble with autopilot. Put the two ideas together and you get the self-driving car. Chris Urmson, who runs Google’s self-driving car programme, hopes that the cars will soon be so widely available that his sons will never need to have a driving licence. There is a revealing implication in the target: that unlike a plane’s autopilot, a self-driving car will never need to cede control to a human being.

Raj Rajkumar, an autonomous driving expert at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks completely autonomous vehicles are 10 to 20 years away. Until then, we can look forward to a more gradual process of letting the car drive itself in easier conditions, while humans take over at more challenging moments.

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But as Harford has illustrated with an earlier example from an Air France crash, only giving humans the challenging moments carries dangerous presumptions in itself.
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The danger of smart communication technology • Arc

Evan Selinger:

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Although outsourcing is inevitable, not all outsourcing is good for us. In What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard ethicist Michael Sandel gives a great example of what many of us would consider an improper instance.

Sandel asks us to imagine someone delivering a moving best man speech who hides the fact that he outsourced its writing — purchasing the text online from a service that excels in generating poignant prose. Even if the toast was born of good intentions, a genuine desire to deliver a memorable and moving presentation that makes everyone happy, a problem remains: the groom’s best friend, a highly trusted confidant, passed off a commodity as something else. Deceptively, he presented another’s work as heartfelt sentiment that came to mind after deep soul-searching. The lack of authenticity strikes most of us as appalling, which is why the best man wouldn’t open his speech honestly by revealing its origins.

While Sandel’s example retains its force even if it’s a machine, not a human-based online service, that has created the enchanting speech, the problem doesn’t go away when we consider outsourcing communication in more mundane, everyday uses. To get a better sense of the main problems with using Allo and related smart communications products, it helps to consider their features in light of the six basic existential characteristics that apply to all forms of outsourcing.

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From there, one goes to…
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Terms of endearment, computer-generated • ROUGH TYPE

Nicholas Carr:

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there’s something deeper going on here. Allo’s message-generation algorithm reveals, in its own small way, the strange view of personal relations that seems to hold sway in Silicon Valley. To the entrepreneurs and coders who run today’s massive social networks, our conversations are data streams. They can be tracked, parsed, and ultimately automated to enhance efficiency and remove kinks from the system.

We already use computers to converse, so the next logical step, in this view, is to use software to conduct the conversations themselves. By relying on an AI to compose our messages, we can optimize our productivity in managing our relationships. Call it the industrialization of affiliation.

Last year, in an online question-and-answer session, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he thinks “there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about.” Stripped to our essence, we humans are just aggregations of data, and it’s only a matter of time before information scientists discern the statistical pattern that defines our beings. At that point, we’ll all be perfectly programmable.

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Carr has a talent for finding the weirdness underlying all the assumptions of Silicon Valley.
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A sequence of spankingly bad ideas • Medium

Alec Muffett is a specialist in security and privacy, and isn’t impressed with the UK government’s plans to introduce mandatory age verification (AV) for access to online porn:

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If our goal is to implement AV then any or all of the solutions may be implemented; however:

• all of the mechanisms are circumventable
• multiplying or combining them will leave them still circumventable, whilst reducing usability and practicality still further.
• at least one of these mechanisms may have significant collateral impact upon mechanisms which defend us against fraud
• at least one of these mechanisms operates in direct contravention of the policies of major source of information that it utilises
• at least two of these mechanisms involve the creation of — presumably huge — databases which may be repurposed in future for monetisation, e.g.: advertising web-tracking, data mining, etc.
• one of these mechanisms seeks to leverage any or all of the other mechanisms; if they are unfit for purpose, so is it

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Still, at least it will satisfy the Conservative backbenches.
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Battery life and charge time – the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus review: iterating on a flagship • Anandtech

Joshua Ho and Brandon Chester:

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Looking at our WiFi web browsing test, it’s genuinely ridiculous how well the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus perform in this test. The iPhone 7 Plus is definitely down on battery life compared to the Galaxy S7 Edge, but it’s within 5% despite using a battery that’s almost 20% smaller. The iPhone 7 is actually comparable in battery life to the iPhone 7 Plus, and is significantly above the Galaxy S7 with Exynos 8890. Of course, the iPhone 7 has a significantly lower resolution display and a smaller battery, but the nature of smartphone design is that larger devices will generally have better battery life because the board area needed remains mostly constant while the amount of area for battery increases. The iPhone 7 has significantly improved in battery life here, likely due to a combination of A10 Fusion’s power optimizations – particularly the small CPU cores – and the removal of the headphone jack, which teardown photos show to have been partially replaced with the battery. However if you do the math efficiency sees a relatively minor uplift.

One other interesting point is that Brandon accidentally ran the battery test on his iPhone 7 with a Safari Content Blocker enabled, which blocked all the ads on the sites that the test visits. In doing so, battery life rose from the normal result of 9.22 hours to 10.03 hours, demonstrating how the increased workload and long-running network requests from ads and trackers really impacts a smartphone’s battery life.

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Some fascinating stuff in this (long, as ever) review. Including this thing at the start:

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It’s interesting to write a review like this, because for better or worse, I didn’t have serious exposure to the iPhone from the beginning. When the first iPhone launched in 2007, I was in school and still used a flip phone that spent most of its time functioning as an alarm and a timer and not much else.

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Tempus fugit.
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No bots please, we’re European! • Creative Strategies

Carolina Milanesi:

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At Creative Strategies we set out to ask 1250 consumers across the top 5 European markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK) how they felt about digital assistants and interacting with bots.

Eighteen% of our European panel said to be using a voice assistant every day. Another 22% use a voice assistant four to six times a week and 39% use it between one and three times a week. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google are slowly but steadily creeping into our lives and we seem pretty happy about it. Thirty-three present of the panel said that it is more convenient to speak than to type and another 25% think it is actually fun to use. While not everybody is quite a believer yet trying it out does not seem to be a big problem as 28% did just that. Only 15% of the panel said they are more comfortable typing than speaking reflecting the fact that the panel did not include Gen Z consumers who will be more likely to embrace voice and touch first UIs.

Despite our familiarity with, and interest in voice assistants, we seem to be happier to interact with them in a more casual fun way than rely on them for life-critical operations. When it comes to interacting with bots in a more business environment consumers would prefer to interact with bots in the car (27%) and in the home (26%). When it comes to banking, something that many consumer still do not trust doing on a mobile phone, consumers preference to have a bot interaction drops to a mere 12%.

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I think I’m in the 22%, but mostly only to do stuff like set timers. It’s very dependent on your context: if you’re mostly in a shared workspace, you probably won’t use it that much.
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How Julian Assange turned WikiLeaks into Trump’s best friend • Bloomberg

Max Chafkin and Vernon Silver:

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WikiLeaks has long sought expanded privacy rights and a diminished role for the U.S. abroad—strongly opposing secret wiretaps, drone strikes, and the Guantánamo Bay prison facility. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has suggested “closing up the internet,” expanding extrajudicial killings, and making Gitmo—a longtime WikiLeaks bête noir—a permanent and expanded institution. Assange started his hacktivism career in the late 1980s and has expressed admiration for the antinuclear activists of that era; Trump has often wondered, out loud, if we shouldn’t consider using nuclear weapons more often.

None of this has seemed particularly to trouble Assange, who has mined the leaked Democratic National Committee e-mails, as well as publicly available e-mails from Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, for any meme-worthy tidbit to reinforce the case against her candidacy. He has used these finding to give cover to thinly sourced theories about Clinton’s health—in late August, he dug up an e-mail that showed that Clinton once received information about a Parkinson’s disease drug—and inventing new anti-Clinton theories out of whole cloth…

…on Friday, WikiLeaks released about 2,000 private e-mails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, just minutes after the leak of Trump’s vulgar remarks caught on video in 2005. It seemed like an effort to blunt the damage to Trump while arming him ahead of the second debate.

Longtime allies have generally been horrified by these developments, with friends and supporters suggesting that Assange has been so intent on playing the media that he may be in danger of losing control. “I’m not sure what to make of this turn to the alt-right,” says John Kiriakou, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who was imprisoned for telling ABC News that the government had tortured suspected terrorists. Among fellow whistleblowers and their friends, Kiriakou says, “There’s no consensus other than maybe Julian is just going nuts.” ([British journalist and Wikileaks editor Sarah] Harrison disputes this, but not entirely. “There are big psychological pressures,” she says. “It’s difficult for him.”)

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And the illustration accompanying the piece is priceless:



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Journalistic and economic values are, unfortunately, not correlated. For now • Monday Note

Frederic Filloux nails the problem news organisations have online, with a fictional example of a paper covering the crash of a plane in their area:

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In every large newsroom of the country, reporters on the transportation beat will move heaven and earth to squeeze their sources in the airlines sector, especially at the National Transportation Safety Board in charge of the post-crash investigation. At this stage, the notion of exclusivity sets in: if a reporter gets her hands on a flight-recorder transcript, the story will score high in terms of economic value. In theory. In fact, due to the structure of a traditional website and the way ads are sold, this scoop is unlikely to carry a higher value than yet another third-hand Kim Kardashian robbed in Paris “report”.

This unfortunate trend has been reinforced over recent years because the share of sales done through automated market places is on the rise: according to e-marketer, the share of programmatic ad spending will reach 73% of the total US market with a year-to-year growth of 44%. And none of the machines that assign an economic value to journalistic work are able to see the difference between a conspiracy theory and an investigation!

You get the point: the market doesn’t reward exclusivity, nor traditional journalistic legwork (the painstaking but crucial craft of cultivating sources).

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As he points out, TV has solved this (and print has too) but we’re a long way from it online. He’s going to be working on it at Stanford; it seems like the sort of project that Google’s Digital News Initiative in Europe should be doing too, with some urgency. (Filloux represented a French publisher in the DNI launch.)
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Actually, Ken Bone is bad • Gizmodo

Sophie Kleeman:

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First, let’s rewind and look back at what, exactly, Ken Bone asked.

“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”

Are you fucking kidding me, Ken?

This question is equivalent to asking, “So, what do you think about all that stuff going on in Syria?” or “Man, police brutality, huh?” It’s one of the broadest, softest questions imaginable, and it doesn’t even mention climate change by name. Ken Bone chose to devote his precious rhetorical capital to the business side of science, while leaving out the actual science almost entirely.

The candidates, of course, were delighted. “I think it’s such a great question,” cooed Donald Trump, who denied ever denying climate change during the [first] debate. He then went on to bloviate about “clean coal,” which, besides not actually existing, also allowed him to neatly side-step any tough statements about climate change, climate science, or any of the specific issues currently plaguing our planet that will almost certainly cause our downfall in about 100-odd years. Hillary Clinton went on about turning America into a “21st century clean energy superpower,” though she did acknowledge — extremely briefly — that climate change is a “serious problem.” You don’t say.

That climate change — and science in general — didn’t come up in any real way during the debate shouldn’t come as a surprise, because we are the country, after all, that continues to deny the problem exists in the first place.

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I came prepared to disagree completely with Kleeman, but she persuaded me. Bone’s question was a missed chance to identify important political fault lines.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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