Start Up: how Facebook splits us, Alphabet’s selloff, the tld domain scam, Parrot shrinks, and more


What if someone takes over your phone using voice commands you can’t recognise? Photo by TechStage on Flickr.

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Back by minimal demand! A selection of 17 links for you. (It’s 20-17, after all.) Please do not abuse them in Russian hotels. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why America is self-segregating • Points

Danah Boyd:

»

Naive as hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domestically and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnifying social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people, not empower them to self-segregate…

…In the springs of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch. Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of 2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.

«

The longer piece has much more data, and is even more remarkable.
link to this extract


Demo: Hidden Voice Commands • UC Berkeley/Georgetown U research

An eight-strong team from the two universities show how machines can hear things that you can’t – and will act on them:

»

The video below shows black box attack attack being carried out in presence of background noise with the target phone kept at a distance on 10.1 ft away from the speakers used to play the attack audio. 

The understanding of attack commands by a human listener is subject to priming effects:  when we already know the actual message embedded in an obfuscated command, we unconsciously “hear” that message in the noise. This effect is so extreme that we can even “hear” primed messages when no such message actually exists; see, for example, Sounds you can’t Unhear

«

The video is creepy, and amazing. They’ve published a paper too.

I mean, imagine if you broadcast one of those “hidden” commands over some speakers to direct the phone belonging to, say, a resident of a tower in New York to open a URL which exploited a known Android security flaw so you could take the phone over and passively connect to the microphone. Imagine.
link to this extract


How volunteer reviewers are saving the world from crummy – even dangerous – USB-C cables • Fast Company

Glenn Fleishman:

»

Nathan Kolluru [who has been testing and then reviewing USB-C cables bought from Amazon] has also seen the downside of being fully independent: In July, he wrote about a warning from Amazon that he risked termination of his Prime account after he tried to return some non-standards-compliant cables.

But surely this isn’t how the hardware world should work for consumers. Shouldn’t there be a formal source of information about a new technology’s promise and pitfalls that isn’t reliant on manufacturers and industry trade groups?

Well, yes, there should. And for a glorious few decades there was, in the form of test labs at computer and other electronics trade magazines. Before the rise of the internet, tech companies that wanted to reach consumers and businesses bought advertising in magazines such as PC Magazine, PCWorld, and InfoWorld. That made such publications highly profitable, which funded large staffs and testing labs.

«

Hey, guess what happened to them? But this is a good article about what the USB people can and can’t do. Though it doesn’t give us much of a timeline for when it will all be plain sailing as it always almost is with USB-A.
link to this extract


Longtime Apple programmer and Swift creator leaves Apple for Tesla • Ars Technica

Andrew Cunningham:

»

Ted Kremenek, another longtime Apple developer who has been with the company since 2007, will be taking over Lattner’s duties as Swift project lead.

[Chris] Lattner has worked at Apple since 2005, and he’s been involved in a lot of major tools and software initiatives over the years. His extensive resume lists many versions of Xcode going back to at least version 3.1, LLVM and the Clang frontend, OpenCL, LLDB, and Swift. He also did some work on macOS, helped tune software performance for the Apple A6 used in the iPhone 5, and helped with the transition to 64-bit ARM CPUs that began with the iPhone 5S. His resume shows a willingness to create, adopt, and evangelize new software and programming languages, which will no doubt be a component of his work at Tesla.

«

11 years is a fair length of time. But equally, Lattner was clearly important at Apple, which couldn’t find a way to keep him. You can see that becoming the person in charge of self-driving software at Tesla would be attractive. And clearly, Apple doesn’t have the same means of attracting him.
link to this extract


78% of global smartphones will be sold to replacement buyers in 2017 • Strategy Analytics

»

According to the latest report from our Wireless Smartphone Strategies (WSS) services: Global Smartphone Sales by Replacement Sales vs. Sales to First Time Buyers by 88 Countries : 2013-2022, global smartphone replacement sales outweighed sales to first time buyers in 2013, for the first time ever. In 2017, we expect 78% of global smartphones will be sold to replacement buyers. We forecast replacement smartphone sales will continue to dominate smartphone sales across all six regions by 2022.

«

I think they mean 78% of smartphones globally, but anyhow. Saturation beckons.
link to this extract


LG Electronics, moving away from modular model, plans new smartphone • WSJ

You know that thing where annoying people say “I told you so”? I told you so about LG’s modular plan.

Also, I think we can declare 2016 “the year of moving away from modular smartphones”. Besides all the other things it was.
link to this extract


Apple’s 2016 in review • Chuqui

Former Apple employee Chuq von Rospach:

»

Why make a product?

If you boil business down to essentials, there are only three reasons a product should exist:

Because it makes you money: Most products need to make you money and contribute to the financial success of the company. Some are going to be more profitable than others, but you shouldn’t be doing products that lose you money (buy hey, we’ll make it up in volume!). Unless…

Because it’s strategic: Sometimes you create a product for strategic reasons: it’s not going to make you money, but it’s necessary to compete, or it creates other opportunities where you can profit indirectly (iTunes is a great example of this, where most of the profit came from iPod sales and later music and media sales), or you’re investing in in something that in the long term you expect will make you money some day, but you need to start now and let the market grow (but you can’t really wait until it does, because someone else will take the market from you first) — the Apple TV, while labelled a hobby for years, was such a strategic investment. So were the early Airport devices, because Apple saw wireless as a big part of its future and a long-term competitive advantage, but existing WIFI devices were pretty terrible and had horrible user experiences.

Because it matters to you: And sometimes you do it because you feel it has to be done. Apple’s strong commitment to accessibility is one very visible place where they are clearly investing not because it’ll make them money, but because it’s an important thing to do.

I bring this up because it helps me frame my view of the reality of the Macintosh product line and why I think Apple’s gotten some things very wrong with it.

«

This has been a very widely shared article (but linked here just in case). Von Rospach makes many good points: one gets a feeling that Apple is struggling to keep its arms around everything it’s doing and keep it all timely. That has become a much bigger problem with its expanding product range, and there have been lacunae when it was smaller (iMovie and iPhoto languished for years, as did iWork). But that doesn’t excuse the stunning lag on the Mac Pro, and the decisions around the MacBook Pro – for which von Rospach gives this analogy from experience:

»

Back when I was running most of Apple’s e-mail systems for the marketing teams, I went to them and suggested that we should consider dumping the text-only part of the emails we were building, because only about 4% of users used them and it added a significant amount of work to the process of creation and testing each e-mail.

Their response? That it was a small group of people, but a strategic one, since it was highly biased towards developers and power users. So the two-part emails stayed — and they were right. It made no sense from a business standpoint to continue to develop these emails as both HTML at text, but it made significant strategic sense. It was an investment in keeping this key user base happy with Apple.

«

link to this extract


Registering a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 • Medium

Justin Searls got a Surface Pro 4:

»

I’ll have a lot more to say about my experiments in trying out Windows over the coming days, but as a special Christmas bonus edition, I thought I’d share the steps that were apparently required for me to register my Surface Pro 4 with Microsoft.

As I got in bed last night, I activated tablet mode for the first time and while perusing the don’t-call-it-Metro tile page, I saw an app called “Surface”. I have one of those, I thought, I should tap that!
At first blush, the purpose of the app is to introduce you to the Surface’s features, process device registration, solicit customer feedback, and so forth. The first thing the app asks of its users is to register the Surface device for benefits that include both requesting (and cancelling!) hardware service. Since part of my aforementioned experiment is to begrudgingly click “yes” to every asanine pop-up and prompt the operating system throws at me, I decided to go ahead and register the device.

«

Partly this is an argument for not trying to register devices while in bed. But it’s also a cautionary tale for UX designers. And it’s entertaining too. For longer reading, his “warm takes” on the experience are excellent.
link to this extract


Yahoo leaves behind $30bn ‘company’ that does nothing • MarketWatch

Therese Poletti:

»

When Yahoo Inc. officially becomes a part of Verizon Communications Inc., it will leave behind a “company” with no workers and no product. Yet this entity, which doesn’t even have a name yet, is worth more than six times the amount Verizon is paying for the internet portal that web users have known for decades.

The rest of Yahoo is made up of its Asian assets – a roughly 36% stake in Yahoo Japan and 16% equity stake in Alababa Group Holding Ltd – as well as $7.1bn in cash, a large portfolio of patents, certain minority investments and its convertible notes. Considering Yahoo’s market cap at the close of trading Monday, after Verizon said it would pay $4.8bn for the core business, was more than $36bn, Wall Street appears to value these assets at more than $30bn.

«

Then again, you could argue that in its last few months the part of Yahoo that Verizon *is* buying was a company that did nothing.

And “Altaba” is an awful name.
link to this extract


CES proves carmakers still confused about autonomous driving • The Information

Amir Efrati:

»

Mr. Hafner’s [of Mercedes, which has teamed up with Nvidia] comments are interesting given a view among traditionalists in the self-driving field—including people who work at Waymo (formerly Google), Baidu and Ford—that Nvidia’s approach, which is sometimes called “end-to-end deep learning,” either won’t work or is outright dangerous.

Coincidentally, a day before the Mercedes-Nvidia announcement, a primitive version of Nvidia’s “AI-trained” car being demonstrated in a parking lot outside the exhibition hall veered off course. It would have crashed into a portable wall if Nvidia engineers hadn’t remotely stopped it, according to a person who saw the incident.

Danny Shapiro, senior director at Nvidia’s automotive business, said in an interview that the car’s self-driving system, called “pilot net,” had been “trained” earlier in the week during cloudy conditions so when the sun came out on Thursday, the system was unprepared. He added that the car is not representative of Nvidia-powered autonomous driving systems because it was making driving decisions based on data from just one camera. Nvidia’s latest system supports vehicles with many more cameras and other sensors.

«

But how long will it take to train them in every conceivable weather, road and other condition?
link to this extract


Alphabet said in talks to sell Skybox satellite business • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Ashlee Vance:

»

Alphabet Inc. is in talks to sell the Skybox Imaging satellite business it acquired for $500m less than three years ago, another sign the technology giant is ratcheting back grand ambitions to blanket the globe with internet service.

Planet Labs, a satellite imaging startup, may acquire Skybox, according to people familiar with the situation. Some employees from the Alphabet division, renamed Terra Bella last year, are moving to Planet Labs as part of the deal, while others may get different positions at Google, according to these people. They asked not to be identified because the transaction is private.

«

Wow. Things really are getting tight at Alphabet. When Google bought Skybox, its ambitions looked completely untrammeled; the potential looked huge to know everything about trade all over the world. Now? A retreat.
link to this extract


Why Google might sell its Fiber business • The Information

Kevin McLaughlin:

»

Google underestimated the costs of laying fiber. Meanwhile, Google Fiber’s consumer appeal was eroded as rivals upgraded their services by offering faster speeds and better pricing. Google Fiber executives hoped to sign up around 5 million subscribers within five years but only had around 200,000 subscribers by the end of 2014, a former Google employee said in August. Google paused the buildout in 11 cities where it had planned to offer coverage. Mr. Page ordered the Google Fiber team to cut costs by using wireless technology to continue expanding Fiber to other cities.

That raises deep questions about Google Fiber’s future. Wireless technology doesn’t have enough capacity to offer the same broadband and TV service as a fiber network. At the same time, Google Fiber can’t just stop service. It has signed contracts in cities to operate the service for several years, so it’s legally bound to ensure that the service remains operational and continues to be supported, said another former Google Fiber employee.

«

Suitors could include CenturyLink, says McLaughlin. Odd how nobody is seeing these retrenchments as defeat for Google; if Apple (say) were publicly to sell off or give up on something, the DOOM noise would go all around the internet.

link to this extract


Alphabet cuts former Titan drone program from X division, employees dispersing to other units • 9to5Google

Seth Weintraub:

»

In 2014, Google bought Titan Aerospace, maker of high altitude, solar-powered drone aircraft. At the time Google noted, “It’s still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.” Titan previously said that its drones could collect real-time, high-resolution images of the earth, carry other atmospheric sensors and support voice and data services…

…In mid-2015 Titan team experienced a crash in the Arizona desert which was in 2016 revealed to be a wing fault. Later last year, under the moniker ‘Skybender’ reports surfaced from Spaceport America in New Mexico that Google planned to use 5G for dispersing internet, but the team there seemed to be experiencing significant problems.

We’ve now heard and Alphabet has confirmed, that the Titan group was recently shut down and engineers were told to look for other jobs within Alphabet/Google in the coming months. Over 50 employees were involved in the process. The Titan Team has been dispersing to other groups including the Project Loon effort, which similarly aims to distribute internet via high altitude balloons.

«

Spring cleaning really started early. Loon is still going, but at this rate Google X will be Google x. Don’t forget too that it’s still trying to sell off its robotics division, originally purchased as Boston Dynamics.
link to this extract


Parrot is laying off a third of its drone division • Recode

April Glaser:

»

Parrot, the French drone maker, announced today it is planning to lay off one-third of its drone-related workforce — about 290 employees — after poor performance in its fourth quarter caused it to miss sales estimates by 15%.

Specifically, Parrot said margins are so low in the consumer drone business that it wouldn’t be able to generate “profitable growth … over the medium and long term.”

This echoes other industry commentary that DJI has been undercutting the market with much cheaper-priced drones. Parrot isn’t alone in cutting back.

Chris Anderson, CEO of drone software firm 3D Robotics, estimated in an October interview with Recode that DJI dropped prices by as much as 70% in less than a year, which is a key reason his company stopped making drones altogether after it entered the market in 2015 with its Solo quadcopter. The company now focuses solely on drone software.

«

I feel that consumer drones aren’t a real market – just a fad. I’m not so certain about the business market either: Amazon is doing lots of testing, but you’d expect it to. Google ditto. This doesn’t mean they can make them work profitably compared to people with vans.
link to this extract


How search engines are killing clever URLs • The Atlantic

Lindsay Gellman on Icann’s largely failed attempt to get us all excited about new top-level domains:

»

Although investors scrambled—and shelled out up to $185,000 a pop—for the chance to snatch up the new domains and profit as gatekeepers, uptake among end-users has been underwhelming. More than three years after the program’s launch, roughly 26m new generic top-level domains have been registered, compared with the 164m registered “legacy” top-level domains.

Cyrus Namazi, the vice president of domain-name services and industry engagement at ICANN, acknowledged that demand for new top-level domains won’t eclipse that for legacies “any time soon.”

Yet Namazi believes registrations for the new extensions will continue to grow. “We are in the embryonic stages of the expansion,” he said.

Indeed, the fresh prospect of a virtual gold rush has set the niche market for domains abuzz, drawing veteran investors eager to place bets on what they see as a long-overdue expansion of the Internet’s architecture that will gain traction over time. Major players in the domain world include registries, which operate a given top-level domain, and registrars, which dole out individual URLs from registries to users. Their shared mission: identify and control access to desirable domains.

Those who have a stake in the new top-level domains argue that short, clean URLs ensure that brands will be remembered and found online. They predict that firms will continue to compete vigorously for attractive domains to signal trustworthiness to users.

Richard Tindal, the chief operating officer of Donuts Inc., a registry that operates new top-level domains like “.guru” and “.email,” said that while the new extensions have yet to reach a “tipping point of awareness,” he believes they will be “ubiquitous” within a few years as users realize the possibilities for customization and more firms adopt them.

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I recognise the irony in saying this while posting on a site whose suffix is “.blog” (WordPress gave it to me free), but people have become used to trusting the standard TLDs dating back to 1991 or so; other ones much less so. And standard economics suggests that if you vastly increase the available domains, the new ones don’t rise in value. Quite the opposite.
link to this extract


I was a victim of a Russian smear campaign. I understand the power of fake news. • The Washington Post

Anne Applebaum:

»

Why are Americans so vulnerable to fake news, both domestic and foreign-sourced? Why do they consume it and pass it on? A part of the explanation lies with the Republican Party, which told people for years to hate and fear “Washington” and has now created a constituency that actually prefers information generated by the Kremlin or white supremacists to fact-checked or edited news. In this election, the distrust of Hillary Clinton also made people shy away from anyone who seemed to support her.

But it is also true that we are living through a global media revolution, that people are hearing and digesting political information in brand-new ways and that nobody yet understands the consequences. Fake stories are easier to create, fake websites can be designed to host them, and social media rapidly disseminates disinformation that people trust because they get it from friends. This radical revolution has happened without many politicians noticing or caring — unless, like me, they happened to have seen how the new system of information exchange works. This is true not only in the United States and Europe but around the world. Half of all Filipinos are active Facebook users, and millions of them shared the scare stories and fake news that helped elect President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist who claims he has personally carried out nonjudicial executions.

«

Applebaum was the subject of fake news reports which bounced around Russian “news” sites for a while in 2015 after she began writing about Ukraine.
link to this extract


World energy hits a turning point: solar that’s cheaper than wind (and coal) • Bloomberg

Tom Randall:

»

It started with a contract in January to produce electricity for $64 per megawatt-hour in India; then a deal in August pegging $29.10 per megawatt hour in Chile. That’s record-cheap electricity—roughly half the price of competing coal power. 

“Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices, BNEF chairman Michael Liebreich said in a note to clients this week.

Those are new contracts, but plenty of projects are reaching completion this year, too. When all the 2016 completions are tallied in coming months, it’s likely that the total amount of solar photovoltaics added globally will exceed that of wind for the first time. The latest BNEF projections call for 70 gigawatts of newly installed solar in 2016 compared with 59 gigawatts of wind. 

The overall shift to clean energy can be more expensive in wealthier nations, where electricity demand is flat or falling and new solar must compete with existing billion-dollar coal and gas plants. But in countries that are adding new electricity capacity as quickly as possible, “renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies,” said Liebreich. 

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Seemed worth marking this point.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified. Despite such a long layoff.

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