Start up: Facebook’s race ad row, Merkel’s search query, how Vine withered, toaster’s hacked!, and more

OLED displays are coming to next year’s iPhone, Sharp’s chief says. Photo by adafruit on Flickr.

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

Merkel: internet search engines are ‘distorting perception’ • The Guardian

Kate Connolly:


Angela Merkel has called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture.

The German chancellor said internet users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via search engines was channelled to them.

Speaking to a media conference in Munich, Merkel said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.

“Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”


The key point is that they’re not interrogable: we can’t trace back how they reach their conclusions. Humans, at least, can be asked.
link to this extract

Sharp president confirms new iPhones to adopt OLED panels • Nikkei Asian Review

Debby Wu:


Remarks by Sharp President Tai Jeng-wu, also an executive at Sharp’s parent company Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn Technology Group, came at a time when Apple is working on revamping the design of its flagship device to boost sales during the iPhone’s 10th anniversary next year.

“The iPhone has been evolving and now it is switching from LTPS (low-temperature poly-silicon) to OLED panels,” Tai told students at Tatung University, his alma mater, during a ceremony in which he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree.

“We don’t know whether Apple’s OLED iPhones will be a hit, but if Apple doesn’t walk down this path and transform itself, there will be no innovation. It is a crisis but it is also an opportunity,” Tai said.


link to this extract

Facebook lets advertisers exclude users by race • ProPublica

Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr.:


Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers.

That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.

The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.


Not quite: you can’t exclude Caucasians. This is the most amazing blind spot on Facebook’s part. Moreover, it cannot pretend to be a “tech company”. It makes its money from advertising and it’s reliant on content. It’s a media company, just like a newspaper or TV broadcaster.
link to this extract

The inside story of Vine’s demise • Vanity Fair

Maya Kosoff:


The issues of resources and competing visions, however significant, seemed exacerbated by a slowness to develop new product features. “When we introduced music looping when I was there, it was the idea that you could add music to your Vines and it would loop perfectly,” one former employee said. “When I started, we were having those meetings. It took almost a year and a half for it to actually launch in the app, whereas Snapchat was launching something new every two weeks.”

Leadership was a problem, too. Vine operated nearly independently of Twitter. It was headquartered in Twitter’s New York office, while the rest of Twitter is stationed in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. All three of Vine’s founders had left the company by October 2015. Twitter’s politics also took a toll on Vine. “There’s a bunch of different video things stewing around, but nobody has a clear vision for what video on Twitter should be, which was shocking,” a former employee told me. “As with all things at Twitter, it became a little more political. It became a little more like, ‘Well, who’s going to become the person who kind of runs all the video stuff?,’ as opposed to, ‘What the hell is our perspective on how video should work?’”

In Silicon Valley, there are really two kinds of companies: those that have good ideas, and those that can make money. Doing both is the ultimate goal, but Vine, along with untold numbers of on-demand delivery apps and novelty social-media companies, may have been the former, not the latter. Vine stars living in a luxury condo in Los Angeles may have loved the idea—as did Vine’s users—but the company never found its footing generating revenue. (Twitter itself is still figuring out a path to profitability.)


Salient point: Twitter had three video services running at once. That’s the inside view. And now for the external view…
link to this extract

Inside the secret meeting that changed the fate of Vine forever • Mic

Taylor Lorenz:


Last fall [in 2015], nearly 20 of Vine’s top 50 creators gathered in a conference room at 1600 Vine Street in Los Angeles to stage an intervention.

They were there to meet with Karyn Spencer, Vine’s Creative Development Lead, and other representatives from Vine in a last-ditch effort to save an app they saw was failing fast.

Marcus Johns, with 6.1 million followers, and Piques, a Vine star with more than 3.1 million followers, helped organize the meeting. They and their peers had noticed a sharp dropoff in engagement on the app. Johns and Piques owed their fame to the platform, and they were desperate to turn it around.

The stars had a proposal: If Vine would pay all 18 of them $1.2m each, roll out several product changes and open up a more direct line of communication, everyone in the room would agree to produce 12 pieces of monthly original content for the app, or three vines per week.


They also asked for Vine to deal with harassment and abuse (among other things). Which didn’t happen. Twitter, amazingly, considered the payment – then decided not to. And so Vine died.
link to this extract

Mac malaise •

Curtis Clifton works at the Omni Group, which makes Mac/iOS software:


The real issues is that the Touch Bar is impressive tech looking for a problem. [Daring Fireball’s John] Gruber writes:


The Touch Bar is the answer to “These keyboard F-keys are cryptic and inflexible — what can we replace them with that’s better?” That’s an actual problem.


That is not an actual problem. Actual problems are user problems. What job does the Touch Bar do? None of the demos of the Touch Bar were compelling to me. Everything the Touch Bar does can be done on-screen with trackpad input or on a tablet with pen input. “But now you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard!” Instead I have to take my eyes off the screen. That’s a win? No. It’s a gimmick.

The one actual problem the Touch Bar might address is discoverability. By showing controls that are appropriate for the user’s current task, devs might help their users find more of the power their software provides. I see two counterpoints here. There’s nothing stopping developers from doing that now without the extra hardware, and there’s a very good chance that the extra real estate will be used to overwhelm rather than edify. Just think what the team that designed Microsoft Office’s ribbons UI could do with yet another row of buttons.

That brings me to the heart of why the event was so disappointing. Apple is targetting casual users and sacrificing support for power users.


I’d like to know what sort of internal discussions Apple had in the past about various design changes in laptops, and what there was over the Touch Bar. This wasn’t done in a hurry. The design team created it – in response to the software team? The marketing team? Off their own bat? – and then the software team had to implement shortcuts for it in tons of apps, as well as the software to run it. That’s a lot of time during which someone could have said “You know what? This is stupid.” But then what do you get? The same devices as before, speedbumped. It’s notable that those who are most negative about the Touch Bar have never seen it. This is a common trope with new Apple features.

Instead of the Touch Bar, they could have made a touchscreen. Except Apple already has a touchscreen OS, and products which run it.
link to this extract

Apple’s new MacBooks: out of touch or just in time? • Forbes

Mark Rogowsky:


Many critics yesterday shared the view of Business Insider’s Rosoff and questioned Apple’s apparent intransigence to build a Mac touchscreen.

But while the desire for such a feature is understandable, its absence makes sense if you’re Apple. The company decided several years ago that touchscreen PCs offer a lousy user experience: Whether on a laptop or desktop, the screen is too far away to be easily pressed most of the time. To fix this, you need to first redesign the OS to support touch and then second redesign the hardware to get closer to the user.

Microsoft has performed a clever version of the latter with the new Surface Studio. But while that machine is gorgeous, at $3,000 and up, Microsoft will be lucky to sell 100,000 per quarter. In fact, for all the marketing and hype around Surface, the Pro tablet/PC hybrids sell only about 1 million in a similar time frame. These are products for the pundit class, to be sure, with apparently cutting-edge features and lots of legacy technology built in (USB ports, woot!).


The difficulty is figuring out to what extent the pundit class really has the pulse of the “ordinary” buyer. Do “ordinary” people buy a Pro device? The MacBook Air will do plenty well for most people who want USB-A and legacy connectors. If you’re a pro and buying a Pro, you might be able to spring for the extra cost of the connectors – and have a need for Touchbars and so on.
link to this extract

Why freemium apps suck for everyone (and how Apple is killing paid apps) • Cult of Mac

Graham Bower:


The reason we held out for so long against the switch from [insisting on having an app that is] paid-for to freemium is because, honestly, we think it sucks.

Last year I wrote a manifesto for classy app developers. I argued that app pricing should be clear and easy for the user to understand. Frankly, most freemium apps are anything but.

Take Pokémon Go for example. There is no way I would have downloaded this “free” app had I known that it would end up costing me over $40. Yes, I realize that I’m a grown adult and it is entirely up to me how much I choose to splurge on cute pocket-size creatures.

But my lack of impulse control aside, the fact remains that, like most freemium software, the total cost of ownership for the game is unclear at the start. When you download it, you really have no way of knowing how much storage, incense, lucky eggs and lures you will need to purchase.

To be fair, Pokémon Go is far from unique in this respect. In fact, these days this is pretty much the norm, which means I now avoid the temptation of “free” games like Madden NFL Mobile because I have absolutely no idea how much they are really going to cost me. Suddenly the price of the console version looks like a bargain.

Like Steve Jobs said about music, I believe that people want to own their apps. That way you know what the total cost will be.


In common with many before him, Bower argues that Apple should have offered the ability to get free trials, and that this would have “saved” paid apps. To which I’d say: what are freemium apps with IAPs, if not a form of free trial? OK, they’re not exactly the shareware model (use 30 days, then pay or discard). But you can get pretty close – watermarking, no-file-save, and so on.
link to this extract

The inevitability of being hacked • The Atlantic

Andrew McGill:


I switched on the server at  1:12 p.m. Wednesday, fully expecting to wait days—or weeks—to see a hack attempt.

Wrong! The first one came at 1:53 p.m.

This graphic is a simulation—a bot’s-eye view, if you will—but it’s the actual sequence of commands the hacking script used. It tried a common default username and password (root/root) and executed the “sh” command, giving it the ability to run programs and install its own code. My fake toaster doesn’t allow that, of course—it just cuts the connection.

The next hacking attempt, from a different IP address and using different login credentials, came at 2:07 p.m. Another came at 2:10. And then 2:40. And 2:48. In all, more than 300 different IP addresses attempted to hack my honeypot by 11:59 p.m. Many of them used the password “xc3511,” which was the factory default for many of the old webcams hijacked in last week’s attack.

The last attempted hack came 6 minutes ago using the username “root” and the password “xc3511.” (Yes, those are live figures; they were updated when you loaded this page.)

I’ll admit this volume of attacks might not be typical. I hosted my fake toaster on a virtual Amazon server, not an actual toaster hooked up to residential internet. Hackers aren’t typing these passwords themselves—they’ve programmed bots to do the hard work for them, scanning through thousands of open ports an hour.


Actual journalism: show people what happens, and how quickly. Nicely done, The Atlantic.
link to this extract

Sweden bans cameras on drones • BBC News


The use of camera drones has been made illegal in Sweden unless they are granted a special surveillance permit.

Under new rules set down by the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden, camera drones qualify as surveillance cameras and require a licence.

Permits can be expensive and paying to apply for one does not guarantee it will eventually be granted.

There are no exceptions made for journalists, and critics have said the ruling could mean job losses.

In what some are describing as a “huge blow” to the aerial photography and camera drone industry, the court ruled that drone-mounted cameras are “regarded as surveillance cameras”.

Industry group UAS Sweden (Unmanned Aerial System) has argued that the court ruling could put 5,000 jobs in danger.


Petapixel says more than 20,000 drones were sold in Sweden in 2014, and more than 1,000 permits for commercial use.
link to this extract

Total nightmare: USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 • Stephen Foskett, Pack Rat


The core issue with USB-C is confusion: not every USB-C cable, port, device, and power supply will be compatible, and there are many different combinations to consider. The newest, most full-featured devices (such as Apple’s brand-new Touch Bar MacBook Pro) will support most of the different uses for the USB-C port, but typical older devices only support basic USB 3.0 speed and (if you’re lucky) Alternate Mode DisplayPort.

And it gets worse. Many USB-C peripherals are limited in various ways as well. Consider a simple USB-C HDMI adapter: It could implement HDMI over USB 3.0 or it could use Alternate Mode (native) HDMI. It could even (theoretically) implement HDMI over Alternate Mode Thunderbolt using an off-board graphics chip! Of these options, only the newest computers, like the MacBook Pro, would support all three. Can you imagine the consumer confusion when they purchase a “USB-C HDMI adapter” only to find that it doesn’t work with their MacBook or Pixel or whatever?


The capability for USB-C to screw things up really emanates from two things: all the legacy things that USB used to do; and all the display capabilities that USB-C is trying to incorporate. It also reminds me of the early days of Wi-Fi, when IBM was trying its damndest to push 5GHz 802.11a, while all the consumer-facing money was in 2.4GHz 802.11b.

“Standards”, eh. However, what USB 1.1 and Wi-Fi couldn’t do was this:


the issue of incompatible cables is even more serious. Many companies, including my go-to source, Monoprice, are building USB-C cables of various quality and compatibility. If you’re not careful, you can neuter or even damage your devices by using the wrong cable. Seriously: using the wrong cable can damage your machine! This should not be possible, but there it is.


link to this extract — free image hosting / image upload •


Please contact us if you have a CDN [content delivery network] that is capable and willing of serving 1.8 Petabytes of outgoing traffic per month free of charge, or if you can make a donation to help us pay a monthly $12,000 bill from CloudFlare that we are now facing.

We have already received over $1300 worth of donations and counting. Thanks to everyone who is contributing; you rock!


Gee, you can’t serve 1.8PB (1.8 thousand TB, 1.8 million GB) for nothing? Shocking.
link to this extract

George Hotz cancels his self-driving car project after NHTSA expresses concern • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:


Hotz posted the full letter (which you can read here) to the Twitter account this morning. It was sent alongside a special order requesting more information about the Comma One, and The Verge was able to confirm its authenticity. Hotz also wrote that he “would much rather spend my life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn’t worth it.” He went on to write that he was canceling Comma One, and that “will be exploring other products and markets.”


Amazing that the US road regulator would want to stop people putting potentially lethal one-tonne vehicles into the control of unproven software.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start up: Facebook’s race ad row, Merkel’s search query, how Vine withered, toaster’s hacked!, and more

  1. Regarding “Humans, at least, can be asked.” – But will they tell you the truth? And even if they aren’t deliberately dishonest, there’s plenty of research that what they say often doesn’t reflect their real reasons. I’d much rather deal with analyzing an algorithm than trying to get information out of a hostile person. I suspect journalists have an extremely distorted view of this in general, since they have a position of social power where authorities will mostly try to give them some sort of at least semi-plausible explanation, which is then taken as a relevant itself.

    Anyway, that “distorting perception” article was odd. I’ve learned “algorithms” doesn’t have any technical meaning in these context. It’s basically become a kind of specialized jargon term for something like “accountability to governmental sociopolitical framework”. It’s like the different senses of “optics”.

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