Start Up: hating Alexa, the Atom killer, sayonara Photosynth, how Vizio kept its promise, and more

The in-flight screen: an endangered species on internal US flights? Photo by idivilayil on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. But you don’t see them report that, do you? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the future of AI—it’s a glorified radio clock and, otherwise, stupid • Quartz

Alexander Aciman:


I can’t imagine that the designers at Amazon would have been thrilled with the minor achievement of having assembled the world’s foremost clock radio when they built the Amazon Echo, a smart home hub that came out in 2015. But what else could they possibly have expected after packing this little device with a prodigious number of useless easter eggs and yet somehow overlooking a glaring, Death Star-level flaw: the Echo uses Bing instead of Google. Which is to say, it can read you the prime directive from Star Trek and can tell you who is the fairest of them all, but it can’t tell you what the Packers’ record is this year. If in 2001 at the age of 11 I learned to use Google, I should like to think that Alexa in 2016 should be able to do the same.

Although this sleek, feminine robot was meant to be an outstanding piece of smart home technology, the slow evolution of home automation and the dearth of smart home products in the average household has made devices like the Echo or Google Home—Google’s voice controlled smart hub, similar to Alexa—much better suited for being asked to look things up on the internet than anything else. This reality doesn’t bode well for Alexa, because her response to 95% of basic search queries is “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” It is a phrase that Alexa owners are all too familiar with. It is a phrase you hear again, and again, and again, and soon you will feel that time has stopped, and you will never want to look up anything on the internet ever again.


I’m always waiting for someone to come up with a ton of compelling uses for the Echo. Playing music isn’t quite enough. And the smart home stuff requires your home to already be, well, smart. Very few are.
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AI ‘can replace 250,000 public sector workers’ • UK Authority

Mark Say:


Automating more administrative roles in public services with artificial intelligence (AI) systems could remove almost 250,000 employees from payrolls, according to a new report on the future of the workforce.

Right-leaning think tank Reform makes the argument for the approach in Work in progress: Towards a leaner, smarter public sector workforce. It takes in a range of factors affecting the issue, but makes clear that the more advanced forms of digital technology could have a disruptive effect on the way the public sector is organised over the next few years.

It advocates the increased use of “diamond shaped” workforce, in which there are more staff in middle ranks while many of the tasks for lower ranking jobs are automated.

This could be supported by the growing sophistication of government websites and the use of chat bots – a form of artificial intelligence that can simulate a human conversation – a move that Reform says could remove the need for nearly 90% of central government’s administrators by 2030. It claims this would save Whitehall £2.6bn per year.

Taking a similar approach in the NHS could replace 90,000 administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists, it says.


Savings from the top line, perhaps, but the cost in annoyance to users trying to get bots to understand them could be substantial.
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Dying Intel Atom processors take out network equipment • iTnews

Juha Saarinen:


A serious flaw with Intel’s Atom C2000 product family can cause processors to fail completely, rendering the devices they power inoperable after just 18 months of operation.

The low-power Atom C2000 Silvermont processor range was introduced three years ago, and is found in popular network switches and routers, microservers, and network accessible storage systems.

Kit vendor Cisco has issued an advisory for the problem, noting the failures start appearing after a unit has been in use for around 18 months.

Once the processor fails, “the system will stop functioning, will not boot, and is not recoverable”.

Cisco optical networking, routing, security, and switching gear – including the ASA and ISA3000 family – are affected.


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Microsoft Photosynth has been shut down • Photosynth Blog

The Photosynth team:


Key parts of the Photosynth code live on in other Microsoft products, and we’re proud of the influence Photosynth had on photo technology across the industry during its nine-year life.

We hope that everyone who wanted to recover their synths and panoramas from the site were able to do so before the shutdown. As we announced earlier, Microsoft is not keeping a copy of them going forward. These were yours, and we had a license to them while the service was running.

Photosynth changed the way some of us went about capturing a memorable place.


Would like a little more clarity on quite how it changed things.
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Your in-flight movie screen is going extinct • Bloomberg

Justin Bachman:


Book a domestic flight on any of the Big Three U.S. airlines, and you won’t be sure whether the seat in front of you has a screen. Some do, while most don’t. Eventually maybe none will.

The proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, in tandem with increasingly reliable inflight Wi-Fi, has led to a profound shift by many airlines, which now view entertainment on shorter flights as best delivered wirelessly, without the expense or hassles posed by screens.

As with most things on an airplane, the determining factor is poundage. Planting a screen in each seat adds weight, which burns additional fuel, which costs more money. On top of that, the screens have a tendency to break as people poke and punch them—often to the annoyance of the passenger in front of them. Today, the new kid on the block for in-flight entertainment, or IFE, is personal-device entertainment—the ability to stream TV and movies to passenger gadgets from a server on the plane. This video is typically free, although United still charges as much as $7.99 to watch live television channels on planes equipped with DirecTV.

“For domestic flights, I really do see the industry trending toward streaming IFE,” said Jason Rabinowitz, director of airline research at Routehappy Inc., a New York company that tracks airline amenities. “It’s cheap for airlines to install, there’s no wiring, no weight penalty. These systems can be installed virtually overnight, and the costs to maintain these things are virtually nothing.”


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Trump says terror attacks ‘under-reported’: Is that true? • BBC News

Betteridge’s Law applies.
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VIZIO, INC. (Form: S-1/A, Received: 08/31/2015 16:54:34) • Nasdaq

Remember yesterday’s link about Vizio being fined $2m by the FTC for grabbing viewer data and selling it to advertisers? Here’s a bit of its S-1 (the document it files for prospective investors ahead of an IPO) under the “Risk Factors” section:


The use of Automatic Content Recognition, or ACR, technology to provide viewing behavior data to advertisers and media content providers is an emerging industry. Our Inscape data services are in an early stage of development and its success depends on various factors. Our failure to successfully monetize our Inscape data services could materially and adversely harm our growth prospects.

We recently began offering to advertisers and media content providers our Inscape data services, which provide viewing behavior data collected using our ACR technology from our Smart TVs. We are in the early stages of commercializing our Inscape data services and it has not yet resulted in meaningful revenue. Moreover, the utilization of viewing behavior data collected using ACR technology through Smart TVs to inform digital advertising and content delivery is an emerging industry, and future demand and market acceptance for this type of data is uncertain…

…growth in our Inscape data services may require changes to our existing business model and cost structure, modifications to our infrastructure and exposure to new regulatory and legal risks, any of which may require expertise in areas in which we have little or no experience. These risks pose a material adverse risk to our growth prospects and in the future, may pose a material risk to our results of operations and financial condition.


At least they got it right about the regulatory bit.
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Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple seeks design perfection at new ‘spaceship’ campus • Reuters

Julia Love:


Time and time again, Apple managers spent months perfecting minute features, creating a domino effect that set back other parts of the project, former construction managers say.

Signage required a delicate balancing act: Apple wanted all signs to reflect its sleek, minimalist aesthetic, but the fire department needed to ensure the building could be swiftly navigated in an emergency.

Dirk Mattern, a retired deputy fire chief who is representing the Santa Clara County Fire Department on the project, estimated he attended 15 meetings that touched on the topic.

“I’ve never spent so much time on signage,” he said.  

When Apple tapped general contractors Holder Construction and Rudolph & Sletten to finish the main building in 2015, one of the first orders of business was finalizing a door handle for conference rooms and offices.

After months of back and forth, construction workers presented their work to a manager from Apple’s in-house team, who turned the sample over and over in his hands. Finally, he said he felt a faint bump.

The construction team double-checked the measurements, unable to find any imperfections – down to the nanometer. Still, Apple insisted on another version.

The construction manager who was so intimately involved in the door handle did not see its completion. Down to his last day, Apple was still fiddling with the design – after a year and a half of debate.


You sort of guessed it would be like this.
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Apple Watch has its best quarter and takes nearly 80% of total smartwatch revenue in Q4 • Canalys


Apple set a new quarterly shipment record in Q4 2016, contributing to total smartwatch shipments exceeding 9 million units. This global market figure was largely driven by Apple’s 6 million shipments, representing year-on-year growth of 12%. It was the Apple Watch’s best quarter despite being significantly handicapped by supply constraints, even though Apple simultaneously expanded its supply chain. According to Canalys estimates, the Apple Watch generated more than US$2.6 billion in revenue for Apple in Q4 2016, making up nearly 80% of total smartwatch revenue…

…Xiaomi also enjoyed a record quarter of its own for basic band shipments, reaching 5.5 million Mi Bands. “New batches of Mi Band 2s were shipped in time for the Singles’ Day shopping festival in China,” according to Analyst Jason Low. “Building on the success of its first-generation Mi Band, Xiaomi quickly expanded the availability of the Mi Band 2 across Asia Pacific and Central and Eastern Europe. India, Poland and Russia were key markets where the device was introduced alongside the company’s Mi and Redmi smartphones through direct and third-party online channels.”


Maybe Xiaomi will do a reverse Fitbit and move from smartphones (losing money) into fitness bands.
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Politics have turned Facebook into a steaming cauldron of hate • Backchannel

Jessi Hempel:


“Whelp,” my mother began our weekly phone conversation. “Marge and I aren’t speaking.” Marge is one of my mom’s best friends. When she moved houses, Marge showed up with curtains and a lamp and had her grown son heave boxes in from the car. When my mom found herself alone on Christmas one year, Marge set an extra spot at her table.

But here’s the thing: Marge is a Republican. My mom, a Democrat.

This hasn’t mattered for the better part of the last decade. Their friendship is built on warm conversations over lunches, shared confidences, and favors exchanged. But then, several weeks ago, Mom became so outraged by current events that she began posting a series of anti-Trump memes and quotes.

Marge’s daughter commented on a post, saying the sentiments were all lies. Mom responded. The daughter responded. The posts continued and the comments continued. Marge jumped in. And by the end of the string of messages, no one was friends anymore. I’m not talking about Facebook friends — I mean IRL.


The US is going to tear itself apart, or Trump will vacate the office. I can’t see a compromise.
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Sad to announce: Hans Rosling passed away this morning • Gapminder

Anna Rönnlund and Ola Rosling:


We are extremely sad to announce that Professor Hans Rosling died this morning. Hans suffered from a pancreatic cancer which was diagnosed one year ago. He passed away early Tuesday morning, February 7, 2017, surrounded by his family in Uppsala, Sweden.

Eleven years ago, the three of us, Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Rönnlund founded Gapminder. In 2007 Hans decided to “drop out” of university to work only 5% as professor at Karolinska Institute. That was a great decision. The 95% he worked for Gapminder made him a world famous public educator, or Edutainer as he liked to call it.

Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!


I wrote about Rosling’s work in January 2007 at The Guardian. He had already done so much – discovering a new disease – before he decided to challenge governments’ reluctance to make their data open. He inspired me. Anyone who does data journalism is in his debt.
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Fashion gets a digital upgrade with the Google Awareness API • Android Developers blog

Jeremy Brook of The Zoo:


Currently under development, the Android app specifically uses the Snapshot API within the platform to passively monitor each user’s daily activity and lifestyle with their permission. Where do you regularly eat out for dinner or hang out with friends? Are they more casual or formal meetups? What’s the usual weather when you’re outside? After the course of a week, the user’s context signals are passed through an algorithm that creates a digitally tailored dress design for the user to purchase.

The Android app is launching in closed alpha stage, and is currently being tested by selected global style influencers including Ivyrevel’s co-founder Kenza Zouiten.


“Global style influencers”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up: hating Alexa, the Atom killer, sayonara Photosynth, how Vizio kept its promise, and more

  1. Regarding “The US is going to tear itself apart, or Trump will vacate the office.”

    That’s not necessarily an exclusive-or. However, the personalization in terms of Trump is confusing a symptom with the disease – though perhaps the more accurate word is the medical term “comorbidity”.

    • It also doesn’t help that you can wave a ton of facts in front of a Trump supporter and they still don’t believe what they see with their own eyes.

      Its reach the point where you don’t want to bother talking to them because there’s no pay off for you or for them.

      I blame segregation in pubs. When I lived in the UK and went to the pub you could be talking to a petty criminal one day, a stockbroker the next. Even if professions had favorite pubs, it wouldn’t be totally stocked full of them. In the US, its the exact opposite. All the lawyers go to one pub, all the non-profit people to another and so on. Hence they rarely interact in a day to day basis (and they usually all live in enclaves where they don’t interact much either). This leads to one group seeing the other as a bunch of lazy hippies and the other a bunch of bible bashing ignorants, which doesn’t help tone the message down.

      So in other words, pubs are subconsciously gerrymandered almost as much as some of the congressional districts.

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