Start up: further Russian hacking, MacBook Pro redux, troubled tablets?, Wii U goodbye, and more

US elections are built around a picture of 1950s American which no longer exists. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives 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.

Microsoft says Russia-linked hackers exploiting Windows flaw • Reuters

Jim Finkle and Dustin Volz:


Microsoft said on Tuesday that a hacking group previously linked to the Russian government and U.S. political hacks was behind recent cyber attacks that exploited a newly discovered Windows security flaw.

The software maker said in an advisory on its website there had been a small number of attacks using “spear phishing” emails from a hacking group known Strontium, which is more widely known as “Fancy Bear,” or APT 28. Microsoft did not identify any victims.

Microsoft’s disclosure of the new attacks and the link to Russia came after Washington accused Moscow of launching an unprecedented hacking campaign aimed at disrupting and discrediting the upcoming U.S. election.


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Can DDoS attacks trigger ads and make money for the target? • calls itself “a think tank for digital crime fighting”:


Can DDoS attacks trigger ads? 


Yes. All application / layer-7 DDoS attacks trigger ads on the target site by default. The”visits” resulting from some layer-7 DDoS attack are no different from visits from advanced web scrapers visiting a page. This means layer-7 attacks may end up making money for the target and give the incentive to the target to not disclose such attacks. For ad fraud perps, it gives plausible deniability for otherwise highly suspicious patterns  in their traffic profile…

…Questionable sites often use shady ad networks to monetize their traffic, and many such ad networks will welcome any spike in traffic with open arms. Regular ad network commission is 50% or more of the revenue generated by the ad impressions on a site in their network. Therefore they do not always have the right incentives to disqualify suspicious traffic as non-legitimate. Even major networks such as Google have serious issues in proactively dealing with traffic quality. Recent research covering Google’s ad network traffic quality shows evidence for this claim.


Huh. Interesting idea. Hard to prove, though. Which is what makes it interesting.
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‘Normal America’ is not a small town of white people • FiveThirtyEight

Jed Kolko:


I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity. The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.

By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12.


Also entertaining, in the same piece, is “places that are most like 1950s America” and this comment:


These misconceptions affect our politics: an outdated view of “normal America” is baked into the presidential election process. Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first in the primary season and therefore have disproportionate influence, rank 37th and 41st, respectively, in their similarity to the U.S. overall.


Might make sense to start changing that. Power of data and all that.
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The final Wii U will roll off Nintendo’s production line this week •

Tom Phillips:


Nintendo will end Wii U production this Friday, multiple sources have confirmed to Eurogamer.

At the last official count, as of 30th September, Nintendo had shipped 13.36m Wii U consoles. The Wii U’s final tally will likely now be only slightly more.

For comparisons sake, GameCube sold 21m. N64 sold 32m. Wii sold 101m.

Nintendo’s Japanese production line will shut down for the last time this week after the final deadline for orders passed yesterday, Eurogamer understands. Only a small number of further orders were placed.

Wii U launched back in November 2012 and quickly shifted a couple of million units, although sales have been steady to slow ever since.


The original Wii was wonderful because you stood up to use it. It was an action console. The games – Wii Sports and the rest – reflected that. It was energising. The Wii U turned that into a seated console, with that stupid tablet which was too heavy to hold standing up. It completely missed what made the Wii wonderful, even if it did conform to the idea of a “games console” – ironically, just as the time that games in volume were becoming more mobile than ever before.
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Second Life creators head to virtual reality • WSJ

Joanna Stern:


Onstage at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJDLive 2016 global technology conference, Second Life creator Linden Lab demonstrated its forthcoming social virtual reality platform Sansar. It lets you create a 3-D virtual avatar and environment and then invite others to join you.

“Once you can create any space, you can create any social interaction you want,” says Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg. “Whether it is an office, classroom, family room, bar.”


As long as that social interaction is with spooky robots, as evidenced by the picture of the avatars of Joanna Stern and Geoffrey Fowler:

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Debunking Trump’s “secret server” • Errata Security

Rob Graham on the story, via DNS data, that a “Trump server” is “communicating” with “a server in Russia”:


The evidence available on the Internet is that Trump neither (directly) controls the domain “”, nor has access to the server. Instead, the domain was setup and controlled by Cendyn, a company that does marketing/promotions for hotels, including many of Trump’s hotels. Cendyn outsources the email portions of its campaigns to a company called Listrak, which actually owns/operates the physical server in a data center in Philidelphia.

In other words,  Trump’s response is (minus the political bits) likely true, supported by the evidence. It’s the conclusion I came to even before seeing the response.

When you view this “secret” server in context, surrounded by the other email servers operated by Listrak on behalf of Cendyn, it becomes more obvious what’s going on. In the same Internet address range of Trump’s servers you see a bunch of similar servers, many named [client] In other words, is not intended as a normal email server you and I are familiar with, but as a server used for marketing/promotional campaigns.


Slate’s original story always felt like a stretch.
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Twitter tests new ad-blocking Reader mode on mobile • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Twitter is testing a new feature on its iOS app which turns on Apple’s “Reader” mode by default on every link opened in its in-app browser.

First introduced in 2010, and ported to iOS in 2011, Reader mode is a oft-forgotten feature in Safari that strips out most of the formatting from a webpage, removing adverts, navigation links, comments, and almost everything else except for the main content of a text-based article.

In the new test from Twitter, rolled out for a small number of users – including one Guardian reporter – the company has enabled Reader mode by default on every single link clicked.

While the new feature can be a boon for those navigating badly designed web-pages, it also manages to mangle the presentation of almost as many sites. While the feature works well for traditional news articles, anything that isn’t a chunk of text-heavy content in the middle of a page falls apart.

The change will also be worrying for many media organisations: unlike similar light-weight webpage options, such as Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Amp project, there’s no option to customise the appearance of the Reader version of the page, nor any ability to monetise the views.


Yeah, it’s the latter worrying them. Though there’s no obvious reason why Twitter should be doing this. It seems to be having a bonfire of the vanities at the moment.
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Is that a PC on your desk? Windows hybrids, Macs and iPads struggle for share • ZDNet

Ed Bott:


Does anyone even know what a PC is anymore?

That’s not an idle question. Unfortunately, it’s a reflection of the confusion among analysts covering this space today.

I’ve just reviewed four years’ worth of data from IDC and Gartner, the two big research companies that release regular reports tracking the state of the PC market. IDC publishes its results in its Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, while Gartner’s data is part of its PC Quarterly Statistics Worldwide report. Full reports are a subscribers-only product, but both firms publish detailed press releases with each new publication.

So, if you study both sets of data you’ll get a good handle on the PC market, right?

Spoiler: They can’t even agree on the definition of a PC.

…IDC says a Chromebook is a PC but a Surface Book running Windows 10 isn’t. Gartner counts the entire Surface line but leaves Chromebooks off the list.

To make things even more confusing, Apple (alone among device makers) publishes detailed sales figures for both its iPad and Mac lines. And Tim Cook insists that “the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people.”


Yup, it’s a problem all right; made worse by the purposeful obfuscation by those research companies in their public releases. The companies of course want people to pay for the full data, but there’s plenty of confusion sown because writers get hold of half the story and can’t figure out the other half.
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Low-cost detachables and slates in the lead as tablet market slump persists • IDC


The worldwide tablet market continued its slump as vendors shipped 43m units in the third quarter of 2016 (3Q16), a year-over-year decline of 14.7%, according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. In contrast to the annual decline, 3Q16 shipments were up 9.8% over the second quarter of 2016 as the larger vendors prepared for the holiday quarter.

Low-cost (sub-$200) detachables also reached an all-time high as vendors like RCA flooded the market. “Unfortunately, many low-cost detachables also deliver a low-cost experience,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “The race to the bottom is something we have already experienced with slates and it may prove detrimental to the market in the long run as detachables could easily be seen as disposable devices rather than potential PC replacements.”

“Beyond the different end-user experience delivered by low- and high-end tablets, we’re witnessing real tectonic movements in the market with slate companion devices sold at the low-end serving a broader platform strategy, like Amazon is doing with Alexa on its Fire Tablets, and more expensive productivity tools closer to true computing and legitimate notebook replacement devices that should manage to keep average prices up,” said Jean Philippe Bouchard, research director, Tablets at IDC.

Despite Apple’s marketing push for the iPad Pro, the iPad Air and Mini lines have been the models with mass appeal, accounting for more than two-thirds of its shipments this quarter. Although Apple’s tablet shipments declined 6.2% year over year, total iPad-related revenues were flat for the quarter, thanks to the iPad Pro offering.

Samsung continued to hold the number 2 position. Fortunately, the negative press from the Note 7 did not bleed over into its tablet business. However, overreliance on the declining slate market led to a decline of 19.3% compared to 3Q15. Samsung’s attempt to enter the detachable market with its TabPro S at the beginning of 2016 seems to have taken a backseat as its price and positioning remain uncompetitive.


IDC’s comment implies about 3m iPad Pros (both flavours) shipped/sold, but it sounds like Samsung is hanging on by its fingertips. And – the irony – Microsoft’s Surface still doesn’t figure in IDC’s top five, meaning it shipped fewer than 2.4m (possibly more like 1m), even though it arguably chiselled out the niche for the Pro – but also, I’d suggest, did it too early. It’s not just technology; timing matters too.
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Interview Transcription • transcrbr


transcrbr provides a technological solution to transcribing interviews, while retaining the quality of transcriptions created by humans.


Set up by a team including an MSc in AI from Edinburgh, and a former staffer at Google and Microsoft. It’s aiming to create a speech-to-text product using AI to intelligently transcribe interviews. Sign up if you’re interested. I’ve always wondered how soon we’d have this – the improvements in speech-to-text seem to beckon towards it, yet nobody offered it.
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Uber is quietly terrible for women and black people: study • Jalopnik

Damon Lavrinc:


The National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected non-profit and non-partisan research organization, has released the findings of a two-year study that tracked discrimination of riders using Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel in Seattle and Boston. The study was done by researchers at MIT, Stanford and the University of Washington.

The study involved nearly 1,500 rides across the two cities, with work beginning in Seattle late last year to this March. Undergrads from the University of Washington were given identical phones with the three ride-sharing apps pre-loaded, instructed to take a handful of prescribed routes, and then noting when the ride was requested, when it was accepted by the driver, when they were picked up, and finally when they got to their destination.

In the Seattle experiment, trip requests from black riders took between 16 to 28% longer to be accepted by both UberX and Lyft, and breaking UberX out showed a wait time of 29 to 35% longer than their white counterparts.

Those figures are based on UberX usage, primarily because of the different ways a new ride is displayed to the driver through the Uber or Lyft app.

For Uber, drivers don’t see the name of the person they’re picking up until they accept the fare, at which point they can cancel. But for Lyft, which displays the rider’s name and picture (if they included it) before they accept the fare, means trying to quantize discriminatory practices through Lyft is largely impossible—a model Uber could conceivably adopt.


Two years is a long time for a study. But this really is something Uber should respond to.
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How Apple could have avoided much of the controversy • Chuqui

Chuq von Rospach used to work at Apple; his take on last week’s product introduction (and non-introduction, on the desktop side) is worth your time:


Speaking of clusters, let’s talk Mac Pro for a minute. I’ve come to the belief that the trash can Mac pro, the “Can’t Innovate my Ass” machine, is a product mistake of the “20th Century Anniversary Macintosh” caliber. It was a technological marvel, it was a stunning design, and it was a terrible piece of hardware for it’s primary audiences because of limited upgradability and component flexibility — and then Apple compounded that by not having good upgrade plans in place to refresh it since the design it created wouldn’t let its users do it for themselves.


And this, which to me is a killer point about ports:


to those arguing that Apple is just soaking users by forcing them to buy dongles, adding $40 to a $2500 product simply isn’t financially significant. And if you think about it, if Apple did see these are lucrative products instead of functional accessories, they’d make them a lot prettier.

But the bigger issue around dongles is that niche thing again. These are accessories that allow specific customizations to the device that some people will want, but which most people won’t need. If you think about it, perhaps the biggest change from my older, 2013 laptop is that it’s gone from having seven (yes, that many) ports, each with a specific purpose to having four points, each customizable by a cable to dongle to solve the problem you have.

My laptop has a power port, an SD card port, 3 Thunderbolt ports and two USB ports. I know that in the four years I’ve owned it, I’ve never used the SD card, I use the Power port, one Thunderbolt port, and occasionally plug a USB cable in. So half the ports in this thing are never used — and yet I paid for them because they were built into the computer.

That’s the issue that defines dongles: Should 100% of buyers pay for a feature when only 5% of the owners will use it? Or 10%? How many users will need a feature before you think it ought to be required for everyone to buy it as part of the device? Where do you draw that line?


I’ve never used the SD card slot or – I’m pretty sure – the HDMI output port on my 2012 Macbook Pro. Not really going to fight over that. The whole piece is well worth reading at leisure.
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Benjamin Button reviews the new MacBook Pro • Pinboard blog

Maciej Ceglowski, channelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous character:


The new MacBook Pro shows that Apple is finally becoming serious about developers.

Gone is the gimmicky TouchBar, gone are the four USB-C ports that forced power users to carry a suitcase full of dongles. In their place we get a cornucopia of developer-friendly ports: two USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 ports, a redesigned power connector, and a long-awaited HDMI port.

Photographers will rejoice at the surprising and welcome addition of an SDXC card reader, a sign that Apple might be thinking seriously about photography.

The new MagSafe connector is a bit of Apple design genius. The charging cord stays seated securely, but pops right off if you yank on it. No more worries about destroying your $2k laptop just by accidentally kicking a cord.

What hasn’t changed: Apple has kept the beautiful Retina display, and storage and memory are the same as before. The new machines will be slightly thicker (to accomodate the USB ports) and 200 grams heavier, but it’s not clear how this will affect battery life.

Interestingly, Apple has removed the fingerprint reader and its associated dedicated chip, perhaps assuming that developers would not comfortable with a machine they don’t fully control.


That Button. Some day soon they’re going to start banning him from bars on age grounds.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start up: further Russian hacking, MacBook Pro redux, troubled tablets?, Wii U goodbye, and more

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