Start Up: how GitHub killed trolls, Facebook’s news threat, wearables struggle, Moto mods, and more


Can you spot a fake charger? Your house might depend on it. Photo by kikuyumoja on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What GitHub did to kill its trolls • Fusion

Kristen Brown:

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It was 2014 and the company was growing rapidly as a hub for programmers to collaborate on coding projects. But as its user base grew, so too did its problems. A GitHub developer, Julie Ann Horvath, left the company amid searing accusations of sexual and gender-based harassment, putting GitHub at the center of bad press for weeks and leading to the resignation of the company’s CEO.

To make matters worse, GitHub soon realized such problems weren’t limited to the office. Bullying and discrimination ran rampant on the site. There was systemic discrimination against women, with female coders often taken less seriously than their male peers. Petty disagreements devolved into flame wars in project comments. A bitter ex followed his former girlfriend from project to project, saying nasty things about her. And racist, sexist trolls sometimes co-opted features meant to enable collaboration to carry out vicious attacks, using, for example, a people-tagging feature to tag their targets on projects with racist names, transforming their portfolios into a slur of racist epithets.

Nicole Sanchez, the company’s VP of Social Impact, told that these are the “dangers and pitfalls of online life,” and not unique to GitHub, but GitHub wanted to try to prevent them.

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What’s really notable about the way GitHub tackled this is that it had a diverse team (gender and colour) who knew just how these tools could be abused, and so were able to zero in on how to prevent it.
link to this extract


Facebook’s walled wonderland is inherently incompatible with news • Monday Note

Frederic Filloux:

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when he reiterated Facebook’s mission statement at the F8 conference last April, this is what Mark Zuckerberg had to say:

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We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. (…) We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

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Well. No. That is cool mental construct, but it simply is not true.

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts.

Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

We must face the fact that Facebook doesn’t care about news in the journalism sense. News represents about 10% of the average user newsfeed and news can be cut overnight if circumstances dictate with no significant impact for the platform. (Actually, someone with good inside knowledge of the social network told me that news will be removed from users’ feed should the European Union move against Facebook in the same way it attacks Google on editorial issues).

In that broad context, the fake news situation is just a part of Facebook’s system, a bad apple in a large basket.

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The European angle is concerning; as is the last sentence in that extract, because Facebook can be confident it will be able to fill its ad inventory even – perhaps especially – if it gets rid of “news” sites, whether genuine or fake.

But what happens to the reach of news sites then?
link to this extract


Mounds of Moto Mods: we’ll see at least 12 per year • CNET

Jessica Dolcourt:

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Moto is investing big in Mods, those magnetic, snap-on accessories – such as a battery pack and external speaker – that enhance the Moto Z, Moto Z Force and Moto Z Play. In fact, Lenovo’s Moto execs told a small group of journalists this week, the company itself will commit to releasing at least 12 new Moto Mods a year.

Specifically, that works out to four Mods per quarter that Lenovo makes with partners like Mophie, Incipio and Kate Spade. Lenovo, which bought the Moto brand when it scooped up Motorola Mobility from Google, counts its year from April to April, so look for the number of Mods to ramp up starting next spring.

“Our goal is to get more Mods out this year than we did last year, no question,” said John Touvannas, Lenovo’s Moto Mods director.

In truth, we should see many more than 12 new mods for 2017 by the time next year is through. Lenovo will launch an Indiegogo campaign come January to drum up more developer involvement. Those who pitch the best ideas will get a Mods kit with the hardware and software needed to start making their own prototypes, plus help bringing those ideas to market…

…Here are a few more potential ideas, which may or may not become a reality:

E-reading concept and a mod that uses a front-facing speaker
LED lights to express your mood
Game controller
Measurement tool
Remote control
External storage
Alarm clock
Breathalyser mod
Baby care that measures humidity, temperature, etc.
Colour sensors for the blind.

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Crowdfunded campaigns seem like the optimal way to make this successful, but I still don’t see a sizable public demand for modular phones. Battery packs and external speakers already exist, and you can connect them to the phone of your choice. Alarm clock? External storage? Game controller? All inbuilt. As for the breathalyser, that might have a bigger audience than the colour sensor for the blind – but it feels like Lenovo is just throwing out wild ideas in the hope something will work.

Modular can be more profitable, but it depends heavily on uptake. I remain sceptical.
link to this extract


Fake Apple chargers fail safety tests • BBC News

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Investigators have warned consumers they face potentially fatal risks after 99% of fake Apple chargers failed a basic safety test.

Trading Standards, which commissioned the checks, said counterfeit electrical goods bought online were an “unknown entity”.

Of 400 counterfeit chargers, only three were found to have enough insulation to protect against electric shocks.

It comes as Apple has complained of a “flood” of fakes being sold on Amazon. Apple revealed in October that it was suing a third-party vendor, which it said was putting customers “at risk” by selling power adapters masquerading as those sold by the Californian tech firm.

The Trading Standards tests were performed by safety specialists UL. They applied a high voltage to the chargers, which were bought online from eight different countries, including the US, China and Australia, to test for sufficient insulation.

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What’s the betting, though, that all of the chargers were actually made in China?
link to this extract


​Has voice control finally started speaking our language​? • The Guardian

Rhodri Marsden thinks that Alexa is the product that is making us comfortable with speech control, because it’s in the home, where we’re comfortable with talking aloud into the air:

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Advances in speech recognition could be seen as the fulfilling of a science fiction dream that extends from Star Trek through 2001: A Space Odyssey to Knight Rider and beyond. Its history has been characterised by disappointment, but its key attributes are clear: it is hands-free and fast, devices don’t have to be unlocked and there are no menu structures to navigate. As more TVs and set-top boxes become speech savvy, the remote control will be consigned to history. As devices get smaller and lose their keyboards and screens, voice control will become crucial. And according to [associate director of Futuresource Consulting, Simon] Bryant, the knock-on effects are already being seen. “We’re expecting 6.1m units of Echo-like devices to be sold by the end of this year,” he says, “which takes a huge chunk out of the audio market. And it’s going to boost radio audiences, because people are going into rooms and just want something to be playing.”

Alexa’s ability to instantly switch on Heart FM falls well short of the kind of rich human-computer relationship that’s depicted in the Spike Jonze film Her, but while new apps like Hound are becoming more adept at having longer conversations and understanding context, there are limits to a computer’s ability to deal with conversational interaction, according to Mark Bishop, professor of cognitive computing at Goldsmiths University of London. “Action-focused commands like ‘tell me the weather in Seattle’ are much simpler things for a machine to parse and interact with than an open-ended narrative,” he says. “But there are fundamental problems in AI that, for me, mean that we’re some years away from having a machine that can have a meaningful, goal-directed conversation, if it’s ever possible at all.”

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Marsden certainly has a good point with the idea of not needing a remote control. But then is it just about who can shout the loudest when different people want a channel?
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43,203 Indian patient pathology reports were left publicly exposed by Health Solutions • Troy Hunt

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I’m used to seeing large amounts of personal data left inadvertently exposed to the web. Recently, the Red Cross Blood Service down here left a huge amount of data exposed (well, at least the company doing their tech things did). Shortly afterwards, the global recruitment company Michael Page also lost a heap (also due to a partner, Capgemini). Both cases were obviously extremely embarrassing for the companies involved and they did exactly what you’d expect them to do once they found out about it – they pulled the data offline as fast as humanly possible.

And this is how it generally goes with incidents like this; lots of embarrassment, lots of scrambling to fix then lots of apologising afterwards. Which makes the behaviour of Health Solutions in India all the more confounding. Here’s how it all unfolded.

On Wednesday, someone popped up on the Twitters and shared a link with me via DM which went to http://www.hsppl.com/pathology/downloads/downloadReports and returned this page:

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See, it’s already bad. (That page has been removed. But this was amazing neglect.)
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Fitness trackers in the lead as wearables market grows 3.1% in the third quarter • IDC

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While the smartwatch market took a tumble this quarter, the overall wearables market grew 3.1% year over year in the third quarter of 2016 (3Q16). Total wearables shipments reached 23m in the quarter, according to data from the International Data Corporation, (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker.

Basic wearables, primarily comprised of fitness bands, accounted for 85% of the market and experienced double-digit growth. Much of the increase was attributed to the launch of newer models, an expanding user base, and an enticing summer season that allowed people to step out of their homes. IDC expects the momentum for basic wearables to continue for the remainder of 2016 as the holiday season is now in full swing. However, smart wearables capable of running third party apps will likely continue to struggle in the near term.

“It’s still early days, but we’re already seeing a notable shift in the market,” said Jitesh Ubrani senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “Where smartwatches were once expected to take the lead, basic wearables now reign supreme. Simplicity is a driving factor and this is well reflected in the top vendor list as four out of five offer a simple, dedicated fitness device. Meanwhile, from a design perspective, many devices are focusing on fashion first while allowing the technology to blend in with the background.”

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Fitbit 5.3m units (up from 4.8m year ago); Xiaomi 3.8m (3.7m); Garmin 1.3m (1.2m); Apple 1.1m (3.9m); Samsung 1.0m (0.5m). “Others” rose from 8.3m to 10.4m, but IDC doesn’t distinguish whether those are smartwatches or trackers. I’m guessing the latter.

Samsung’s rise was helped by bundling with the Note 7, despite its recall. My guess is that only Fitbit, Apple and Garmin are making money in this game; Fitbit makes about $8.40 net income per device sold, which is respectable – it’s more than quite a few Android phone OEMs do on their phones (or, especially, their smartwatches).
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Multiple security vulnerabilities found in AirDroid, including ability to send malicious APKs to a user’s device • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:

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Mobile security company Zimperium recently released details of several major security vulnerabilities in AirDroid, allowing attackers on the same network to access user information and even execute code on a user’s phone.

The security issues are mainly due to AirDroid [which has 50m-100m installs via Google Play] using the same HTTP request to authorize the device and send usage statistics. The request is encrypted, but uses a hardcoded key in the AirDroid application (so essentially, everyone using AirDroid has the same key). Attackers on the same network an intercept the authentication request (commonly known as a man-in-the-middle attack) using the key extracted from any AirDroid APK to retrieve private account information. This includes the email address and password associated with the AirDroid account.

But this gets even worse. Attackers using a transparent proxy can intercept the network request AirDroid sends to check for add-on updates, and inject any APK they want. AirDroid would then notify the user of an add-on update, then download the malicious APK and ask the user to accept the installation.

Zimperium notified AirDroid of these security flaws on May 24, and a few days later, AirDroid acknowledged the problem. Zimperium continued to follow up until AirDroid informed them of the upcoming 4.0 release, which was made available last month. Zimperium later discovered that version 4.0 still had all these same issues, and finally went public with the security vulnerabilities today.

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AirDroid has responded with a post that seems to have been Google Translated from another language. It doesn’t really explain anything.
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Fake US embassy in Ghana shut down • Al Jazeera

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Authorities in Ghana have busted a fake US embassy in the capital, Accra, run by a criminal network that for a decade issued illegally obtained authentic visas, the US State Department has said.

Until it was shut down this summer, the sham embassy was housed in a run-down, pink two-storey building with a corrugated iron roof and flew a US flag outside. Inside hung a portrait of President Barack Obama.

“It was not operated by the United States government, but by figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organised crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law,” the State Department said in a statement released late on Friday.

Turkish citizens, who spoke English and Dutch, posed as consular officers and staffed the operation. Investigations also uncovered a fake Dutch embassy, the State Department said…

…The real US embassy in Ghana is a prominent and heavily fortified complex in Cantonments, one of the capital’s most expensive neighbourhoods. Lines of people queue outside each day for visa appointments and other consular business.

The fake embassy was open three mornings a week and did not accept walk-in appointments. Instead, the criminals advertised on billboards in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast and brought clients from across West Africa to Accra where they rented them rooms in nearby hotels.

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Now that is chutzpah.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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