Start up: pricing Xiaomi, pondering bitcoin, Brexit blues, Facebook’s little white lies, and more


Chernobyl: soon to be generating power again. Differently. Photo by CmdrCord on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Emollient and emolument-free. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Survey reveals UK consumer confidence faltering in run up to Black Friday and Christmas • Context Research

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UK consumers’ confidence in their ability to weather the uncertainty around Brexit continues to slide as the most crucial shopping periods of the year approach, according to the latest Retail Pulse Survey from CONTEXT, the IT market research company. The Survey reveals that half of those questioned expect the UK economy to weaken over the next three months, thus dampening spending plans.

Carried out in the middle of October this year across a representative sample of 1,000 consumers in the UK, other main points emerging included:

• There has been a marked deterioration in confidence over the last quarter among older consumers
• Over a third of consumers expect their personal finances to weaken in the next three months
• 35% of consumers expected that they would be able to put less into savings in the next three months
• 37% of consumers thought that now was a bad time to make big-ticket electrical purchases

Amongst older consumers, sentiment has changed significantly since the last survey three months ago. In July 2016, 42% of people 65 and over expected positive UK economic performance. Feelings have now swung massively in the opposite direction with 44% believing the country’s economy will get worse.

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Well, let’s see how people are feeling in the US in a few months.
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Microsoft reboots war on sleep • Medium

“DHH” of Signalvnoise, makers of Basecamp:

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A few years ago, Microsoft launched a Office 365 campaign with the slogan of #GetItDone. The basic premise was fitting more work into more places of your life. Well, not so much just fitting as shoving, cramming, and crunching it into every damn nook and cranny of your existence.

Like, why shouldn’t you check up on that Excel spreadsheet with the latest TPS numbers from the bathroom? Or take that conference call from your kid’s soccer game? Or fake presence with your spouse reviewing Word revisions while watch a show “together”?

Seriously. I’m not making these scenarios up. Microsoft’s campaign included all of them, complete with stats to alleviate the guilt of living such a shackled life. See, everyone is doing it! And Microsoft 365 makes it easier!!

Fuck. That. Shit.

We tried to push back against Microsoft’s #GetItDone back in 2013 with #WorkCanWait. That lead to a whole series of features in Basecamp 3 to encourage the exact opposite of what Microsoft wanted the future of work to look like.

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Guess what? Microsoft’s doing it again. Truly, the idea that work should never be escapable is insidious, and poisonous.
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Chinese solar firm to build plant in Chernobyl exclusion zone • Reuters

David Stanway:

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Two Chinese firms plan to build a solar power plant in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which has been off limits since a devastating explosion contaminated the region with deadly radiation in 1986.

GCL System Integration Technology (GCL-SI), a subsidiary of the GCL Group, said it would cooperate with China National Complete Engineering Corp (CCEC) on the project in Ukraine, with construction expected to start next year.

“There will be remarkable social benefits and economic ones as we try to renovate the once damaged area with green and renewable energy,” Shu Hua, the chairman of GCL-SI, said in a press release.

The 1-gigawatt plant was part of the group’s plan to build an international presence, he added.

CCEC, a subsidiary of state-owned China National Machinery Industry Corp, will be in overall charge of the project, while GCL-SI will provide and install solar components. GCL-SI did not say how much it would cost.

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I love this idea.
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Bitcoin was supposed to change the world. What happened? • Vox

Timothy Lee:

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it’s becoming clear that companies like MasterCard and Western Union are in no danger of going the way of Tower Records. Venture capitalists have poured more than a billion dollars into Bitcoin startups, yet we seem to be no closer to making Bitcoin a mainstream technology. To a large extent, Bitcoin today is still used for the same applications — illicit transactions and financial speculation — that it was in 2014 and 2012.

“I think Bitcoin has stalled out,” said Nathaniel Popper, a reporter for the New York Times who wrote a book about Bitcoin in 2014.

What went wrong? The Bitcoin community has been hampered by a dysfunctional culture that has grown increasingly hostile toward experimentation. That has made it difficult for the Bitcoin network to keep up with changing market demands.

But Bitcoin’s larger problem may be that it just doesn’t solve any problems normal people have. Conventional financial networks are good enough for everyday transactions. And so while Bitcoin is in no danger of disappearing, it continues to be relegated to the margins of the global economy.

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Blockchain, the idea on which bitcoin is built, is likely to get wider use; cryotpgraphically confirmed but low volume transactions such as land registries look particularly promising.

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Time to rethink Xiaomi’s value • The Information

Shai Oster:

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Given that Xiaomi doesn’t release its earnings, it’s arguably better to use revenue multiples instead of earnings as a tool to compare Xiaomi to other manufacturers. In addition, Xiaomi splits profits with hardware manufacturers. (Xiaomi argues that all of these devices contribute to creating a bigger user base to deliver internet services that will have recurring revenue, such as entertainment on television, money market funds and even loans.)

Consider Xiaomi as a hybrid between Apple and Philips, given a little optimism on growth rates for phone sales in India and the fast growth of its appliance sales back in China. This year, phone sales are on track to hit 60 million at an average selling price of $175, according to Canalys. That’s around $10.5 billion in sales. Consolidating revenue from televisions and other hardware could bring revenue to about $13.5 billion. One investor suggests that Xiaomi can be seen as two-thirds Apple, trading at about 2.6 times revenue, and one-third Philips, which last year traded at two times its revenue. Add extra juice for the high growth rates and it could be valued at three times revenue, or $40.5bn.

That’s an optimistic look and still below what it was rated at two years ago. Investors say Xiaomi doesn’t publicly talk about profitability, but executives have said the phone production business maintains an operating profit. Xiaomi has long claimed that the real profits will come from the sale of services to its growing user base, but says it has only started monetizing that base last year through advertising, games and other transactions.

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That’s only a little down from the $46bn that’s offered higher up in the story, and ignores the fact that Xiaomi’s phone sales are slowing down dramatically (down 14% on 2015 so far this year). If it can’t grow its user base, it’s stuck.
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Global notebook shipments up on year after two years of decline • Digitimes Research

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Worldwide notebook shipments are estimated to reach 41.65m units in the fourth quarter, up 6.4% sequentially as demand from the year-end holidays is expected to pick up strongly, while Apple’s fourth-generation MacBook Pro products have entered mass production, helping related upstream supply return to a stable balance. Although Chromebooks and China-based brand vendors are expected to perform weakly in the quarter, their negative influences will only have a minor impact. The quarter will also see the industry enjoy its first on-year growth after eight consecutive quarters of decline.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) will remain the largest notebook vendor in the fourth quarter, while its shipment gap with Lenovo will continue to widen as the China-based vendor is seriously impacted by high channel inventory and business reorganization, according to Digitimes Research’s latest notebook report.

Dell has shifted some of its resources to push the consumer notebook sector for the fourth quarter. This will allow the company to achieve growth in the quarter despite the enterprise sector’s weakening demand. Apple’s new notebook products have seen some negative feedback in design and price, but their major hardware upgrades and new Touch Bar design are still expected to attract many users to replace their old Apple systems. With the shipment growth, Apple is expected to return as the fourth largest vendor worldwide in the fourth quarter.

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Not clear why this pickup should have happened. Apple surely can’t be responsible for all of it.
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Facebook’s Aquila drone is under investigation for a structural failure • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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On July 21st, I reported that Facebook had successfully completed the first test flight of Aquila, the drone with which it hopes to someday provide internet to much of the world. My account, which was based on interviews with Mark Zuckerberg and members of the team that was present on the ground for the June 28th flight, presented the flight as an unqualified success.

The aircraft’s failure was noted in passing in the eighth paragraph of Facebook’s engineering blog on the day our story was posted. (“We are still analyzing the results of the extended test, including a structural failure we experienced just before landing.”)

No one was injured as a result of the failure, and there was no damage to the ground, the NTSB said. But the aircraft was “substantially damaged,” a spokesman said. An aircraft is considered substantially damaged when it is no longer airworthy…

…it is unclear why Facebook did not disclose the NTSB investigation or the fact that the drone was substantially damaged during [my, Casey Newton’s] multiple interviews with its CEO and its team.

For my part, I failed to note the significance of the line in its blog post afterward.

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Watching the folks at The Verge get schooled in how the big boys play dirty is a passable spectator sport (Newton was previously lied to by 3DR, which faked a drone demonstration to him). The question is when The Verge, and the other tech outlets which like to think they’re savvy, will begin approaching the companies they cover from a position of skepticism, instead of puppyish enthusiasm.

They could follow it up by speaking to someone outside the companies for a view. Newton’s original has no voices other than Facebook’s. And all the photos came from Facebook. See how that looks a bit… compromised?

Alternative headline which the Verge for some reason rejected: “Facebook didn’t tell me its drone crashed.” (In fact the original story says “The company hoped Aquila would successfully remain aloft for half an hour. But it was so stable that they kept it in the air for 90 minutes before landing it safely.” Newton wasn’t actually there; he relied on what Facebook told him. Wouldn’t pass muster at the New York Times or the New Yorker.)
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This pizzeria is not a child-trafficking site • NYTimes.com

Cecilia Kang spoke to James Alefantis, who runs the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, and received hateful and threatening messages over bizarre – and fake – claims run on bizarro right-wing sites which exploited Facebook for visibility:

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Mr. Alefantis’s experience shows it is not just politicians and internet companies that are grappling with the fake news fallout. He, his staff and friends have become a new kind of private citizen bull’s-eye for the purveyors of false articles and their believers.

For more than two weeks, they have struggled to deal with the abusive social media comments and to protect photos of their own children, which were used in the false articles as evidence that the pizza restaurant was running a pedophilia ring. One person even visited Comet Ping Pong to investigate the allegations for himself.

To combat the fake news tide, Mr. Alefantis has contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local police, and he has asked Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit to remove the articles. Yet the misinformation has continued to spread, growing into a theory known as #pizzagate that has traveled to Ireland. At one point, Comet’s staff counted five #pizzagate Twitter posts a minute. As recently as Sunday night, the Twitter message “Don’t let up. #PizzaGate EVERYWHERE” was reposted and liked hundreds of times.

“It’s like trying to shoot a swarm of bees with one gun,” said Bryce Reh, Comet’s general manager, whose wife asked him to leave his job because of the threats and vulgar messages they both have received on their social media accounts.

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At times like this, the scenario from episode 6 of the third series of Black Mirror begins to look desirable. (If you haven’t seen it– I won’t spoil it. It’s called “Hated In The Nation”.

(Via Papanic.)
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In response to complaints, some brands are pulling ads placed on Breitbart • Digiday

Shareen Pathak:

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Brands and the agencies that work for them are caught in a tough place when it comes to ads on so-called alt-right websites like Breitbart, which have regularly published articles that stoke nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic sentiments.

Thanks mostly to programmatic advertising, plenty of brands advertise on Breitbart, with advertising appearing next to stories like “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” and “Here’s Why There Ought to Be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths.”  Now, a number of them — including Allstate, Modcloth, Nest, Earthlink and SoFi — are blacklisting the website, under pressure in social media and even blaming the digital ad system for appearing there in the first place.

Many brands had no idea their ads were appearing on Breitbart. Many placements are retargeting ads that follow you on the internet: A recent ad seen for Baublebar is served up by retargeting firm Criteo. Google’s ad network is also all over the Breitbart site, which means any business that does retargeting or audience targeting through Google could show up. In a Twitter message to one complaint, Allstate said, “Unfortunately, the nature of internet buys is such that we are unable to receive full disclosure with regards to all of the websites on which our advertising may run.”…

…A Twitter account called Sleeping Giants has put pressure on advertisers, taking screenshots of advertising appearing on Breitbart, then tweeting at the companies involved. The creator of the account said he would prefer to remain anonymous to avoid being harassed by Trump supporters on the internet. He said he started the account because fake news and disinformation, are, in his opinion, two of the reasons why the election turned out in favor of Trump.

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Note how this is very different from the pre-internet age, when advertisers could be very sure which publications their ads would appear in (and publications tended to know who advertisers were).
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