Start Up: the wall the British built (not Hadrian’s), Echo v VR, how Russians beat US casinos, and more

They’re watching you, and probably selling it to advertisers who’ll use it to identify you. Photo by Ryan Finnie on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I am the scholar caught in Trump inauguration crowd controversy • Times Higher Education

Keith Still explains his (extensive) experience, which meant that…


in the run-up to the inauguration, we were asked to provide an estimate of how many people were at the Abraham Lincoln inauguration and a comment on the historical analysis of the crowds at inaugurations down the years. We turned this around in less than a day, which led to the question: “Can you guys do this in real-time?”

At that time, there were various claims that 3 million people would attend the 2017 inauguration.

Hmmm…let me see. Three million people would need between 750,000 and 1,500,000 square metres. There isn’t enough space. To give you some idea of how this would look, I’ve marked out 1,200,000 in the diagram below.

We knew this would be extremely dangerous if the area was packed to this density. There needs to be provision for emergency services, infrastructures, media village, barriers to prevent forward surges and potential crushing. Consequently, this gave birth to our live inauguration analysis, which would later fuel the media fire – Marcel and me giving minute-by-minute crowd updates for the NYT.


As the minutes ticked towards noon in Washington and the oath of office, we watched the crowds arrive, monitoring the build-up and the areas the crowds were occupying. At 11am, we had a comparison image from the 2009 inauguration and were capturing images from seven live broadcast feeds, assessing the metro data and comparing this with previous inaugurations.


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TV maker VIZIO fined $2M for no-consent tracking of consumer viewing habits • Marketing Land

Greg Sterling:


Smart TV maker VIZIO will pay a $2.2m penalty based on the improper collection of consumer viewing habits and data without consent. The settlement comes after an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General.

The undisclosed data collection was “deceptive” and in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 53(b) and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. VIZIO captured viewing habits and then married that data with demographic information, including sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level and home ownership. The combined data sets were then sold to third parties for audience measurement, ad effectiveness tracking and targeting.


Just amazing. “None of this was disclosed to consumers.” Not that the third parties who now have the data will give it up. And Vizio blithely says it was doing something about it, sorta kinda. Couldn’t happen in Europe because of tougher data protection rules.
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Building a wall to save the economy? Britain has already done that (not Hadrian’s, no) • Medium

Dave Birch:


The American President recently reiterated his plans to build a “beautiful” wall along the border with Mexico, for no reason that I can fathom except to provide stimulus to the Mexican economy at a difficult time. As a good friend of mine says, we should not get too exercised about what is after all nothing more than a harmless public works project of the kind often undertaken by national leaders to secure a place in the national imagination.

I don’t think it will become an object of awe and admiration, though. This 1,000 mile long, 40 foot high barrier, a vanity project of unusual cost and complexity, may never become a tourist attraction to rival the Great Wall of China (the most astonishing man-made object that I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve been to the City of Manchester Stadium) but it may become a new Maginot Line for future generations to study.

Who knows. All I can say with absolute certainty is that it will make no long term difference to smuggling, immigration or the security of American citizens.

How do I know this?

Well, we Brits have been there and done that. We built a wall. We built a wall that was twice as long as Mr. Trump’s wall. And there is nothing left of it today. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.


This is a wonderful, wonderful story. And it contains such lessons for the present. Such a pity Trump won’t ever read it. (No, not Hadrian’s Wall. I thought that. It isn’t.)
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A tale of two technologies: the narrative and the numbers for VR and voice • Midia Research

Zach Fuller:


whilst VR and Voice are both pivot technologies representing different new paradigms to what consumers have experienced before, their public personas have been worlds apart. VR’s public image has been one of bombast and exclamation, yet the Echo arrived quietly, building its public profile by word of mouth and through Amazon’s established sales channels. 2016 was the year that these technologies finally saw their wider release (VR headsets were previously limited to developer kits and Echo exclusively in the US until September 2016), therefore it is interesting to map them against each other to see what the numbers have to say on what the overall public reaction has been thus far:

At 5.2m sales, 3.64m more Amazon Echos were shipped than the total number of mainstream VR headsets combined worldwide, despite the fact that it was only released outside of the US (to the UK and Germany) in the final three months of 2016. Additionally, although Playstation VR was released in October, it saw 750,000 sales into a total of PS4 ownership market (the requisite for PSVR use) of 50m, revealing an adoption rate of only 1.5%.

To give further context, the iPhone sold 3.7m in its first full year of release in 2007 – meaning Echo’s 5.2m has had a 40% higher growth rate for its first year than arguably the defining tech product of the last decade had in its initial release. That voice control quietly became the tech product of the year should also serve as an interesting case study for future adoption patterns.


Whooaa horsey. I don’t think you can reasonably compare the consumer tech landscape of 2007 with 2017; and the iPhone’s first year didn’t really show its potential since it was available on a single carrier, with limited production.

That said, the Echo is – so far – a word of mouth (haha) hit. I still wonder at what uses most people would find for them, though.
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A Russian slot machine hack is costing casinos big time • WIRED

Brendan Koerner with a terrific writeup of how some Russians beat the pseudo-random number generators used by casino slot machines:


By interviewing colleagues who had reported suspicious slot machine activity and by examining their surveillance photos, he was able to identify 25 alleged operatives who’d worked in casinos from California to Romania to Macau. Hoke also used hotel registration records to discover that two of Bliev’s accomplices from St. Louis had remained in the US and traveled west to the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. On July 14, 2014, agents from the California Department of Justice detained one of those operatives at Pechanga and confiscated four of his cell phones, as well as $6,000. (The man, a Russian national, was not indicted; his current whereabouts are unknown.)

The cell phones from Pechanga, combined with intelligence from investigations in Missouri and Europe, revealed key details. According to Willy Allison, a Las Vegas–based casino security consultant who has been tracking the Russian scam for years, the operatives use their phones to record about two dozen spins on a game they aim to cheat. They upload that footage to a technical staff in St. Petersburg, who analyze the video and calculate the machine’s pattern based on what they know about the model’s pseudorandom number generator. Finally, the St. Petersburg team transmits a list of timing markers to a custom app on the operative’s phone; those markers cause the handset to vibrate roughly 0.25 seconds before the operative should press the spin button.


But since then they have become even smarter.
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Jawbone looks to drop consumer wearables for clinical services • TechCrunch

Ingrid Lunden:


Make way for one more pivot from Jawbone. The fitness band maker that originally started out in headsets and later made speakers, has abandoned selling and supporting consumer hardware following a deluge poor reviews and media reports that it has run out of money.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Jawbone is preparing to shift its business yet again — moving from a focus on low-margin fitness bands sold directly to consumers, to a high-margin business to business to consumer model: a health product and accompanying set of services sold primarily to clinicians and health providers working with patients.

As part of that change, Jawbone is trying to raise more money. Sources tell us that it’s been in conversations with its current roster of backers, plus potentially new strategic investors in the wider medical sector, along with new investors outside the U.S.


Having raised just shy of $1bn over the years, it’s hard to see why you’d back Jawbone to make it into the highly-regulated world of clinical services, where others have been dug in for years and aren’t going to make ex-consumer insurgents feel welcome. It would be sending good money after bad.
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As a conservative Twitter user sleeps, his account is hard at work • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg:


For the first new tweet on this day, [68-year-old Daniel Sobieski wants to opine on the spiking murder rate in Chicago and the alleged failings of the city’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel (or, to Sobieski, “Rahmbo”). He navigates to a conservative online magazine for which he occasionally writes, American Thinker, and copies a link to one of his articles about crime.

To reach beyond his own 78,900 followers, Sobieski adds a few more adornments, typing #MAGA to surface the tweet to the president’s supporters online and “.@realDonaldTrump” in hopes of getting the attention of Trump or those who track messages to him. The last six characters are #PJNET, for the Patriot Journalist Network, a coalition of conservative tweeters who amplify their messages through coordination, automation and other online tactics.

Last, Sobieski adds what he calls “the coup de grace,” plucking an image from his ever-growing digital library of illustrations. For this tweet he chooses a photograph of bloodied Iraqi men carrying what appear to be clubs, along with the caption, “BAGHDAD IS SAFER THAN CHICAGO.”

In the time it takes to compose this tweet, his schedulers have sent out several others. Some planes, meanwhile, have taken off from Chicago Midway Airport a few blocks away, sending muted roars through the house he shares with his wife, a Lebanese immigrant and fellow Catholic to whom Sobieski has been married for 39 years. He will stay in front of the computer for another two, maybe three hours before quitting for the day, but his Twitter accounts never stop working.


Fabulous that he’s married to an immigrant. But the real weight is in automated accounts – bots. Accounts like Sobieski’s are called “cyborgs”.
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Anxiety and surveillance: pillars of the new economy • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr on the difference between addiction (the seeking of repeated pleasure) and compulsion (the repeated avoidance of anxiety-causing things) and what we’re driven by in this smartphone world:


The concept of surveillance capitalism helps explain the dynamics of a growing part of the economy. But it doesn’t explain everything. It focuses on the supply side (what motivates companies) while largely ignoring the demand side (what motivates consumers). I’d suggest that the secret to understanding the demand side may lie in the anxiety-compulsion cycle. What motivates consumers is anxiety — not just the fear of missing out, but also the dread of becoming invisible or losing status, the worry that others might know something that you don’t know, the nervousness that a message might have been misconstrued, and so on — and this anxiety spurs the compulsive behavior that generates ever more personal data for surveillance capitalists to harvest. We divulge our secrets because we can’t help ourselves.

This powerful, compulsion-fuelled business model may have emerged by accident — I’m pretty sure that Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t found Google with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems — but it is now sustained by design.


We’re not addicted to our phones so much as behaving compulsively around them.
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PageFair 2017 ad blocking report: Usage up 30% • Business Insider

Lara O’Reilly:


The largest geographical driver of mobile ad blocker use has been in the Asia-Pacific, where 94% of mobile ad blocking takes place.

There hasn’t yet been mass adoption of a mobile ad blocking app in North America or Europe yet, but PageFair predicts mobile ad blocking would accelerate in those regions if device manufacturers or distributors began to pre-configure ad blocking software as standard.

Security was the main reason cited for downloading an ad blocker among consumers polled in the US for the report. 30% of those surveyed said virus and malware concerns drove them to download an ad blocker.

The next most-cited reason for getting ad blocker software was “interruption” (29%), according to the report.

Dr Johnny Ryan, PageFair’s head of ecosystem, said in the company’s previous reports, privacy has been the primary motivation to downloading an ad blocker.


Full report. Growth faster on mobile than desktop, but pretty big in both.
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From fake news to fake opinion • Atlantic Council

Brian Medford:


A few weeks ago, a colleague asked why I was a part of an organization called the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring (also known as the CGS Monitor). Despite working in foreign policy for seventeen years, I had never heard of this organization. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my photograph and biography listed on the CGS Monitor website as one of their “experts.”

I immediately began searching the website for contact information to request that my name be removed. However, it became clear that there was something fishy about this website. Not only was no mailing address given; the only email contact to be found was a ubiquitous “info@” address. My email requesting that my name be removed has never been answered and the website continues to list me as one of their experts.

As a political consultant in Kyiv and a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, I follow politics in Eastern Europe closely. I also maintain a blog on Ukrainian politics and provide political risk analysis for personal clients. Over the last three years, I have witnessed the massive Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine, and have seen firsthand the effects of the war in eastern Ukraine. Like everyone else, I have observed the recent “fake news” phenomenon. But the CGS Monitor website takes fake news and introduces a new element: “fake opinion.”

The Center for Global Strategic Monitoring website appears to be an impressive and thoughtful news and opinion site at first glance. However, one does not have to dig deep to discover that the organization is phony.


Disinformation takes many forms. (The Atlantic Council seems to be something related to Nato, but you could easily create fake sites just like it without anyone being any the wiser.)
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Trump’s FDA pick could undo decades of drug safeguards • NY Times

Katie Thomas:


At an anti-aging conference in 2014, Mr. O’Neill advocated something he called “progressive” approval, in which drugs that were proved safe, but not yet proven effective, could be allowed on the market. “Let people start using them, at their own risk,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Let’s prove efficacy after they’ve been legalized.”

Companies have been required to prove that their drugs work since 1962, when Congress passed legislation requiring that licensing for sale be based not just on safety but also on “substantial evidence” of a drug’s efficacy. That law, and others passed since, forced companies to rigorously test their products, running them through a gantlet of clinical trials whose results are then vetted by the F.D.A. before any sales to consumers. Ninety% of drugs that enter clinical development fail these trials. (The F.D.A. also regulates medical devices, but they undergo a separate approval process.)

As a result, newly discovered drugs can take years to reach the market, a period that Mr. Trump said last week was too lengthy.

“When you have a drug, you can actually get it approved if it works, instead of waiting for many, many years,” he told the pharmaceutical executives. “We’re going to be cutting regulations at a level that nobody’s ever seen before, and we’re going to have tremendous protection for the people.”


Adding this to my growing folder of “ways in which the US is being rolled back to the 1950s, and not in any good sense”.

Also: you can’t cut regulation and make people safer. The two are obviously in contradiction.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: the wall the British built (not Hadrian’s), Echo v VR, how Russians beat US casinos, and more

  1. Didn’t the iPhone only go on sale in June 2007? So 2007 wasn’t its “first full year of release”. No idea how many were sold in 2008, but probably more than 2007.

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