Start Up: Trump’s fake news cronies, Xiaomi unruffled, machine learning cameras, USB-C fun, and more

Zimbabwe is about to try a whole new experiment with its currency. Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Don’t ask for a recount! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Some fake news publishers just happen to be Donald Trump’s cronies • The Intercept

Lee Fang:


LifeZette [a junk news publisher owned by Laura Ingraham, who could become Trump’s press secretary], for all its influence, pales in comparison to the sites run by Floyd Brown, a Republican consultant close to Trump’s inner circle of advisers. Brown gained notoriety nearly three decades ago for his role in helping to produce the “Willie Horton” campaign advertisement, a spot criticized for its use of racial messaging to derail Michael Dukakis’s presidential bid. Brown is also the political mentor of David Bossie, an operative who went to work for Trump’s presidential campaign this year after founding the Citizens United group. In an interview this year, Brown called Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway a “longtime friend.”

Brown now produces a flow of reliably pro-Trump Internet content through a company he owns called Liftable Media Inc., which operates a number of high-impact, tabloid-style news outlets that exploded in size over the course of the election. One of Brown’s sites, Western Journalism, is the 81st largest site in the U.S. with 13 million monthly unique page views, according to rankings maintained by the site Alexa. Another, called Conservative Tribune, is the 50th largest site with over 19 million monthly unique visitors.

Brown’s sites churn out bombastic headlines with little regard to the truth. One viral piece shared by Brown’s news outlets claimed that President Obama had redesigned the White House logo to change the American flag to a white flag, “a common symbol for surrender, which has many people wondering if Obama was trying to secretly signal to America’s enemies that he was surrendering.” The Facebook post touted the article with the line, “We all know Obama hates the United States, but what he just did to the White House logo is beyond the pale.”


In a way, the only surprise is that it’s taken this long – until after the election – to find this.
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Facebook doesn’t need to ban fake news to fight it • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


If you walk into a newsagent, and pick up a copy of the Sunday Sport (American readers, think the National Enquirer but with a lower proportion of true stories), you have a number of contextual clues that suggest a story with the headline “Ed Miliband’s Dad Killed My Kitten” might not be entirely true. The prominent soft porn and chatline adverts; the placement alongside other stories like “Bus found buried at south pole” and “World War 2 Bomber Found on Moon”; and the fact that the paper is in its 30th year of publishing, letting readers build up a consistent view about the title based on previous experience.

If a friend shares that same article on Facebook, something very different happens. The story is ripped from its context, and presented as a standard Facebook post. At the top, most prominently, is the name and photo of the person you know in real life who is sharing the piece. That gives the article the tacit support and backing of someone you really know, which makes it far more likely to slip past your bullshit detector.

Next, Facebook pulls the top image, headline, and normally an introductory paragraph, and formats it in its own style: the calming blue text, the standard system font, and the picture cropped down to a standard aspect ratio. Sometimes, that content will be enough for a canny reader to realise something is up: poor spelling, bad photoshopping, or plain nonsensical stories, can’t be massaged away by Facebook’s design sense.

Nonetheless, the fact that every link on Facebook is presented in the same way serves the average out the credibility of all the posts on the site. The Sunday Sport’s credibility gets a boost, while the Guardian’s gets a drop: after all, everyone knows you can’t trust everything you read on Facebook.

Then, at the very bottom of the shared story, in small grey text, is the actual source. It’s not prominent, and because it’s simply the main section of a URL, it’s very easy to miss hoaxes.


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Xiaomi says shrinking smartphone sales won’t hit the company • Reuters

Catherine Cadell:


last year it missed its global smartphone targets by 12%, while its third-quarter China smartphone sales have tumbled 45 percent, according to research firm IDC – raising doubts that the valuation is still warranted.

Xiaomi’s global vice-president Hugo Barra said the company’s business model was not based on money made from handset sales per se and that it did not need to raise more funds or see any point in doing so at a valuation of less than $46bn.

“Basically we’re giving [handsets] to you without making any money… we care about the recurring revenue streams over many years,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“We could sell 10 billion smartphones and we wouldn’t make a single dime in profits,” he added.

Xiaomi, which discloses little of its profit and revenue figures, has increasingly emphasized its range of home appliances such as air and water purifiers, and rice cookers as key earnings drivers.

In April, Xiaomi Vice President Liu De said the firm expects sales of smart home devices to double to 10bn yuan ($1.5bn) this year.


*smilingdoginfire* This is fine.
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Cameras, ecommerce and machine learning • Benedict Evans

Evans points out that Apple and Google can now sift through your pictures and find you pictures of “dog” or “horse”:


We should expect that every image ever taken can be searched or analyzed, and some kind of insight extracted, at massive scale. Every glossy magazine archive is now a structured data set, and so is every video feed. With that incentive (and that smarthone supply chain) far more images and video will be captured. 

So, some questions for the future:

• Every autonomous car will, necessarily, capture HD 360 degree video whenever it’s moving. Who owns that data, what else can you do with it beyond driving and how do our ideas of privacy adjust?
• A retailer can deploy cheap commodity wireless HD cameras thoughout the store, or a mall operator the mall, and finally  know exactly what track every single person entering took through the building, and what they looked at, and then connect that to the tills for purchase data. How much does that change (surviving) retail?
• What happens to the fashion industry when half a dozen static $100 cameras can tell you everything that anyone in Shoreditch wore this year – when you can trace a trend through social and street photography from start to the mass-market, and then look for the next emerging patterns?
• What happens to ecommerce recommendations when a system might be able to infer things about your taste from your Instagram or Facebook photos, without needing tags or purchase history – when it can see your purchase history in your selfies?


We overestimate how good this stuff will be in the short term, underestimate in the long term.
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How Pinterest uses machine learning to keep its users pinned • Fast Company

Steven Melendez:


Machine learning can not only determine the subject of an image, it can also identify visual patterns and match them to other photos. Pinterest is using this technology to process 150 million image searches per month, helping users find content that looks like pictures they’ve already pinned. Pin a photo of a cheetah-print pillow, and Pinterest will serve up animal-print decor from other users. Future iterations of the Pinterest app may let users simply point their cameras at real-world objects to get instant recommendations.

If a user pins a mid-century dining-room table, the platform can now offer suggestions of other objects from the same era. The key? Metadata, such as the names of pinboards and websites where images have been posted, helps the platform understand what photos represent.


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Blu Products phone maker faces lawsuit over “backdoor” to China • Fortune

Jeff John Roberts:


the incident also led Rosen Legal, a firm specializing in class action lawsuits, to post a “security alert” warning consumers about the backdoor, and inviting those who had bought certain Blu Products devices to be part of an investigation and participate in the lawsuit. The notice also explained how consumers could determine if their devices had been affected by what the firm calls “spyware”:


You can check to see if your Blu Products phone was affected by going to the Settings Menu in Android, selecting “Apps,” followed by “Show System” and then “Wireless Update.” If your version of Wireless Update is from 5.0.x to 5.3.x, or above, your phone was affected and you may be a member of the class action.


Blu Products, for its part, dismissed the law firm’s allegations.

“This is a non-issue and there is no wrong doing from BLU to warrant any such claim. There were no damages that anyone suffered, and this is a typical knee jerk ambulance chaser who dismisses details and is uneducated on the subject,” said Carmen Gonzalez, senior marketing director for Blu Products, said in an email to Fortune.


120,000 devices were affected. I think Rosen Legal could be in with a chance here.
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Why I’m thankful for Android Police: a story of sad and happy coincidences • Android Police

Jeff Beck had a degree in communications but had left a job in radio advertising sales:


The new job I secured was as an assistant media buyer to a promising startup in Seattle. I spent six months there, compiling spreadsheets, and generally hating most of what I did. However, I was happy to have a stable job to help provide for my young family, which at the time consisted of my wife and our first son.

Things were looking good for us. We decided it was time to buy a house, which had been my wife’s dream from the day we were married in August of 2007. After taking a deep breath, we moved in with my parents for a couple of months to save money for a down payment. By combining my meager salary with my wife’s income as a nurse, we were able to scrape together the remaining money we needed to buy a home and soon found one that we liked a few miles north of the city.

We put an offer on the house on a Saturday and anxiously awaited a phone call that we were expecting Tuesday morning at 10AM to let us know if our offer had been accepted. At 9:55 on Tuesday morning I was called into my boss’s office and informed that the company had lost its largest client, and cuts were necessary as a result. My position was one of those cuts.

Fifteen minutes later, I stood on a street corner, waiting for a bus, holding a cardboard box filled with the contents of my desk. A cold Seattle rain pelted my face. My face and hands were cold and numb, and so was my spirit. My phone rang, it was my wife calling in excitement to tell me that our offer went through on the home. Telling her what had just happened was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

A year passed. In that year many of my hopes, dreams, and aspirations died.


This is a touching story, and it would be churlish to note how small AP’s role in his fulfilment really is. It was his avenue to a different job (and writing for AP isn’t part of it).
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The new MacBook Pro is kind of great for hackers • Medium

Adam Geitgey points out that the USB-C port and dongles let you connect anything to anything (such as an Ethernet cable to your USB-C phone, if you have one):


This is just the beginning of what you can do with USB-C. Here are some other fun tricks.

If you get any of the new USB-C compatible monitors (pretty much every vendor has at least one now), you only need to plug one single cable into your MBP.

You can then plug all your other devices into your monitor and everything flows over one USB-C to your laptop — power, video, data and even sound. Your monitor is now your docking station and breakout box!

USB-C on the MacBook Pro supports the new USB Power Delivery (UPD) spec. Beyond just basic wall charging, this spec lets you do fancy things like charge one USB-C device from another in either direction. You can plug your MacBook Pro into another USB-C laptop (like a Chromebook Pixel or a Lenovo Yoga) and one laptop can charge the other! And if you don’t want to do that, they can also use each other’s wall adapters interchangeably.

UPD also allows the MacBook Pro to power external devices with high power requirements over the data connection. For example, you can plug in an external USB-C hard drive and power it over USB-C without needing an external wall wart…

…In a year or two when we all have junk drawers packed full of extra generic USB-C cables that cost nearly nothing, we’re going to look back on this and wonder why everyone was so worked up.


As was also pointed out, we’ve been here before in terms of Apple having zero proprietary ports on one of its PCs.
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As Zimbabwe’s money runs out, so does Mugabe’s power • Reuters

Ed Cropley on plans to issue new Zimbabwean currency which will be traded 1:1 with the dollar:


The notes’ first test will come in the informal foreign exchange markets on the streets of Harare.

If they fall heavily in value, they are likely to unleash an inflationary spiral that could bleed the banking system of its last few dollars and wipe out Zimbabweans’ savings for the second time in less than a decade, economists say.

The same happened in 2008: powerful individuals with access to dollars at the official 1:1 rate were able to buy bond notes at a discount on the unofficial market and then convert them back to dollars at face value.

“You start with one dollar, then you’ve got 10, then you’ve got 100, then you’ve got 1,000 – and it’s not even lunchtime,” said John Robertson, one of Zimbabwe’s most respected private economists.

In Harare’s chaotic Road Port bus station, the main terminus for those heading to and from South Africa, Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner, some bus operators are fearing the worst.

Required to pay nearly all their expenses – fuel, road tolls and police bribes in Zimbabwe and South Africa – in hard currency cash, they are particularly exposed.

“It’s like being on death row. You don’t know when the hangman is going to open your cell door,” said ticket-seller Simba Muchenje, pulling a wad of worthless 2008 Zimbabwe dollars from his briefcase and tossing them onto the counter.


If it melts down, it will be very, very ugly.
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Richemont cuts send shockwaves from Geneva to mountain valleys • Bloomberg

Albertina Torsoli:


In Le Sentier, a town perched in the middle of the Jura mountain range, straddling the border between France and Switzerland, some 400 people protested Thursday against plans to cut the workforce of Vacheron Constantin and Piaget. Forty of the positions destined to go are in the Joux Valley, a rural area about 60km from Geneva that’s home to luxury timepiece makers including Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Breguet.

“We live in anxiety now,” said Alemao Ricardo, a 48 year-old Portuguese who works in the nearby town of Le Brassus decorating Vacheron Constantin watches, which sell for as much as $150,000. “It could be me going, it could be my colleague.”

Swiss watch exports had the biggest monthly drop in seven years in October, with plunging demand in almost every major market. After churning out more than 20 million timepieces annually for two decades, demand is drying up. The downturn is now a threat for smaller Swiss towns and larger cities including Geneva, which have been making watches for centuries and where almost 60,000 people work in the sector.


This has been going on so long it can’t honestly be the Apple Watch, or smartwatches, causing it. Seems instead to be a slowdown in buying from the Far East. Question is, why is that happening?
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The speculative dread of “Black Mirror” • The New Yorker

Giles Harvey:


Each episode of “Black Mirror” establishes the background of normality against which a decisive tweak will stand out all the more starkly. In “The National Anthem,” the show’s début episode, set in a fictional Britain, Princess Susannah, a popular member of the Royal Family, is abducted. Her release hinges on a single demand: the Prime Minister must have unsimulated sex with a pig on live television. “The idea had been knocking around for a while,” Brooker said. “Originally, it was a beloved celebrity that’s blackmailed into fucking a pig on live TV. Society wouldn’t quite be the same. How would you deal with censorship after that?” A few years later, he was watching the counterterrorism drama “24,” one of his favorite shows, when a new possibility occurred to him. “I thought, God, you could do it like that,” he said, his voice recalling the hushed awe of artistic revelation. “The way to do it would be to play it straight.”

In 2010, Brooker and Jones took the premise, along with several other story lines, to Shane Allen, then the head of comedy at Channel 4, and proposed a new series. Allen had commissioned “Dead Set” (2008), Brooker’s first foray into television drama, in which the inhabitants of the “Big Brother” house are the last to learn of a zombie apocalypse ravaging the outside world. (The master joke is that nobody is alive to watch.) The five-part series enjoyed critical and commercial success, but Allen was dubious about “Black Mirror,” and especially about “The National Anthem.”

“It’s one of those things where your knee-jerk response is ‘I’m not sure you can do that,’ ” Allen told me recently at BBC headquarters, in central London, where he is now in charge of comedy. “My boss at the time wasn’t too impressed with it.” The possibility of using another animal was briefly considered. “A chicken?” Allen said when I pressed him for details. “Or a horse? It was a mad conversation.”


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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