Start Up: the Chromebook conundrum, WSJ shuts loophole, VR’s China problem, and more


Geology might have something to say about extending the US-Mexico border into a wall all the way. Photo by Seabamirum 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.

Samsung Chromebook Plus review: future imperfect • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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The trouble starts with the tablet mode. Google either isn’t finished with it yet or just doesn’t know what people want to do with tablets yet (I suspect it’s both). When you flip the screen around, everything goes full screen, with no option to split windows into sidebars. Want to leave it in tablet mode and put it to sleep? Sorry, Charlie — hitting the power button simply takes you to the lock screen, where you’ll have to sit and watch it for 40 seconds before it finally powers down.

Given that Google is pushing out Chrome OS updates on a regular and reliable schedule, I expect those smaller issues will get fixed at some point. What I’m less sure about is the consistency and utility of Android apps on Chrome OS.

Take the stylus, which is a great idea, but badly implemented right now. Google does a smart thing by having it pop open a menu when you pull it out of its silo, but that’s where the current intelligence mostly ends. It’s useful for tapping tiny icons when in tablet mode, but there aren’t many web apps that work well with it. Instead, most of the apps that the stylus is meant to go with are the Android apps, like Google Keep. In the future, Google Keep will use fancy machine learning to reduce the lag. In the present, trying to take even a basic note is like writing with invisible ink: a letter sometimes doesn’t even appear until you’re onto the next one. And the root of the problem is that Android apps on Chrome OS are still in beta — a very much unfinished experience.

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Eight-hour battery life (average for modern laptops), doesn’t run Windows or Mac apps, and Android’s tablet functionality isn’t anything to write home about. Cheap, but not particularly cheaper than Windows PCs. I’m starting to think Google doesn’t quite know how to push ChromeOS.
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The Wall Street Journal to close Google loophole entirely • Digiday

Lucia Moses:

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The Wall Street Journal continues to tighten up its paywall as it strives to hit 3 million subscribers to the Journal and other Dow Jones products.

Starting Monday, it’s turning off Google’s first-click free feature that let people skirt the Journal’s paywall by cutting and pasting the headline of a story into Google. The Journal tested turning off the feature with 40% of its audience last year. But the eye-popping moment was when the Journal turned it off four sections for two weeks, resulting in a dramatic 86% jump in subscriptions. The Journal said the full turnoff is a test, but didn’t say how long it would last.

“A consistent amount of people were avoiding the paywall,” said Suzi Watford, Dow Jones’ chief marketing officer.

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In case you were thinking of trying this today.
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Inside the Google News team • Business Insider

Nathan McAlone:

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Former staffers said the Google News team did not have to deal with much “fake” or “hoax” news, which seems to have only emerged as a phenomenon during the recent US Presidential campaign.

“Spam” behaviors like scraping other people’s news sites for content, and then adding a bunch of scummy affiliate links, were much more common.

Still, there were cases where a publication “followed the criteria for news, but had a really clear and obvious bias,” one person recalled.

Multiple former staffers confirmed that one way to handle such cases was to let the publisher onto Google News, and then manually flag the page so that it ranked lower on Google News. One said that these methods were both clear to reviewers and in their control.

“You could get in and still not show up [prominently]” one person said, referring to publishers on Google News. There were some ways to “prevent users from seeing” a publication once accepted, said another.

Sites that were too biased or untrustworthy could degrade the quality of Google News or even cause embarrassment if they showed up prominently, but an outright rejection of a news site could cause unwanted blowback if a publisher decided to raise a fuss in public. 

So staffers would quietly push some sites to the bottom.

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Here’s Google’s support article on what gets in. Note that since the people interviewed were working there, it has all been outsourced.
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Until we have an Apple Watch of our own, no one is going to take Android Wear seriously • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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Google’s fear that it may alienate partners by building a first-party watch is a silly one. It never cared about alienating partners with its Nexus phones and tablets, and even as competition is increasingly stifled in the smartphone market, Google put out the Pixel. Where’s the “partner ecosystem” compassion there? And are a dozen or so Wear “partners,” many of whose products innovate in zero ways whatsoever and sell poorly, even something to care about losing? After all, some have already abandoned ship: Samsung made exactly one Wear device, Motorola has bowed out of smartwatches entirely, and I don’t think Sony’s itching for a second run at Wear, either.

We’ve given the platform and partners time to prove themselves, and they consistently haven’t. Half-measures like these LG watches, so openly riddled with compromises, are a case in point. Nearly every review I have read of them craves a device that sits somewhere between the two, because neither is actually very good on its own. Google is a company full of incredibly smart people – there’s no way the Wear team didn’t see that LG’s product strategy here has significant flaws. And yet, this partnership forged ahead anyway, and I think the Wear brand will only be hurt for it in the end.

If Google is serious about Android Wear, it should be serious about building Android Wear watches – full stop.

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Ruddock is, as usual, eminently correct. Google is probably worried that if it were to make a smartwatch, sales wouldn’t go well (especially compared to the Apple Watch) and thus be another hardware drag on margins, if not overall profitability. Might as well let the OEMs suck up the losses until Android Wear breaks through, if that day ever comes. It didn’t in tablets, where it’s hard to see any OEMs besides Samsung making a profit on them.
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Who is Oculus Rift for? The desperate problem with Facebook’s VR strategy • BBC

Dave Lee:

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Unofficial data (which I’m using as the companies themselves haven’t shared sales figures with us) suggest that the [HTC] Vive, despite being more expensive, is trouncing Oculus. Games research firm SuperData estimated that 420,000 Vive headsets were sold in 2016, compared to 250,000 sales for the Oculus Rift.

The lower end of the market is far more positive for Facebook. The Samsung Gear VR runs the Oculus VR experience, and that is by far and away the most popular device for VR on the market today, according to SuperData. But the hardware is all Samsung’s and, for the most part, the headset itself (a simple plastic frame with lenses) has been given away with many smartphones.

The hope that the Gear VR might act as a kind of gateway drug into pricier VR experiences has yet to come to fruition.

Or maybe it has, just not for Oculus: the middle ground in VR is Sony’s PlayStation VR, $399 and works with the PlayStation 4. It’s more powerful than the Gear VR, but less powerful than the high-end headsets. But here’s where Facebook should be worried – it seems to be good enough for most gamers.

And it’s “good enough” that makes Facebook’s strategy all the more precarious. Who is the Oculus Rift for, exactly? Super serious gamers are gravitating to the HTC Vive. Moderately serious gamers are happy with PlayStation VR. And at the budget end, the Gear VR, while popular now, faces a clear and present threat from Daydream, Google’s new VR ecosystem which is far more open.

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China’s VR ‘boom’ is a bust, say some experts • Tech In Asia

Steven Millward:

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While all the headlines say that virtual reality is the next big thing in China, an US$820m industry in 2016 growing to a projected US$8bn by 2020, a number of people are saying the very opposite – that the supposed boom is actually a big bust.

Of an estimated 35,000 VR arcades that last year popped up around China, only less than half or around 12,000 are still in operation, according to iHeima, a well-established Chinese business news site.

Only about 20% of those arcades are making any money.

Enterprising store owners leaping into VR are finding it impossible to charge fees comparable to cinemas or bowling alleys for a VR experience. One VR arcade owner told iHeima that he saw eager queues when charging US$1.50 for a 30-minute session, but everyone vanished when it rose to US$5. From that kind of revenue it’s impossible to pay the rent.

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The future of advertising relies on the internet of things • Aldo Agostinelli

Aldo Agostinelli:

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The survey [by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, IAB], rather bluntly titled “The Internet of Things”, showed that 62% of the interviewees owns at least one device connected to the IoT and 65% of those who don’t own any are going to buy one soon. Data on advertising is even more interesting: 55% of the interviewees are willing to be served ads in exchange for discounts or exclusive apps, and the percentage reaches 65% among those who already own IoT connected devices. Furthermore, 69% of those whose income is around 100 thousand dollars per year, and 68% of young people aged between 18 and 34, are happy to receive with pop up ads via the IoT.

The IoT has many benefits for advertising: not only can a message related to a product reach a specific and clearly identified target audience, but the message can be designed based on data which makes it more personal and, therefore, more efficient. Indeed, companies which can collect data from the Internet of Things will be able to use the data also to better understand who their customers are and how their products are used. They’ll be able to add new information to the CRM, notify customers about future product upgrades and develop advertising campaigns aimed at increasing customers loyalty. Which means other agents may intervene and develop ad hoc software and applications.

Absolut, for instance, in partnership with Evrythng, a company specializing in the IoT, is trying to design smart bottles which can connect to the net. With a total of over 100 million bottles delivered each year, this is a logical step aimed at keeping in touch with their customers even after purchases have been made.

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What an appalling, dystopian world. Ads with everything.
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What geology has to say about building a 1,000-mile border wall • Smithsonian Science

Maya Wei-Haas:

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Dirt can also eat up the wall’s support system. Soils that are naturally acidic or have high chloride levels can rapidly degrade iron-rich metals, says McKinnon. These soils could “corrode any, say, nice big metal rebar that you’re putting in there to stabilize your foundation,” she says. Other soils have a high amount of sulfates, a compound found in the common mineral gypsum that breaks down both metals and concrete. Sulfate-rich soils are common in what’s known as the Trans-Pecos soils along the border in the southwestern arm of Texas.

Upkeep of such a lengthy structure is challenging. And even if such a wall can be erected, the size of budget necessary to keep it standing remains unclear. (Kevin Foy / Alamy Stock Photo)
“You’re going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of soils along [such a lengthy] linear pathway,” says Clendenin. (In fact, there are over 1,300 kinds of soil in Texas alone.) And many of those soils aren’t going to be the right type to build on top of. At that point, would-be wall-builders have two options: Spend more time and money excavating the existing soils and replacing them with better dirt—or avoid the region altogether.

One thing they can’t always avoid, though, are regions at risk of earthquakes and floods. Rivers run along a sizeable portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, which can create a very real danger of flood. Building adjacent to rivers can also present unexpected legal issues: A 1970 treaty necessitates that the fence be set back from the Rio Grande river, which delineates the Texas-Mexico border. Because of this, the current fence crosscuts Texas landowner’s property and has gaps to allow landowners to pass.

Earthquakes are also relatively common in the western U.S. Depending on the build, some of these tremblors could cause cracks or breaks in the wall, says McKinnon. One example is the magnitude 7.2 quake that struck in 2010 near the California-Mexico Border, according to Austin Elliott, a postdoctoral student at the University of Oxford whose research is focused on the history of earthquakes. “If there had been a wall at El Centinela [a mountain in northern Mexico] it would have been offset,” Elliott writes on Twitter.

Even if all the proper surveys are completed and the boxes checked, success isn’t guaranteed. “There are just so many things that have to be done before you even shovel out the first scoop of dirt,” says Clendenin.

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Trump wants all the surveying done by mid-year (he signed an executive order in January). Ain’t gonna happen. And then what?
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By selling its in-house satellites, Google has remade the industry • The Atlantic

Robinson Meyer:

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From a business standpoint, here’s the news: Google sold its in-house satellite business, known as Terra Bella, to Planet, Inc. Planet is a startup based in San Francisco that already operates a fleet of 60 orbiting cameras the size of shoeboxes. With the acquisition, Planet is now the de facto leader in the small-satellite space, and it will add Terra Bella’s seven high-resolution satellites to its own constellation of medium-resolution craft.

As part of the deal, Planet will give Google access to its growing archive of imagery for at least the next few years.

But the more interesting development has less to do with acquisitions and more with technological capacity. Planet also announced that it will deploy 88 small satellites later this month, as part of a rocket launch from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southeastern India on February 14. Assuming that most of the spacecraft make it to orbit intact, these satellites should become fully operational by the summer.

When that happens, Planet will be the first to hit a long-discussed milestone in the industry: It will photograph every place on the entire planet every day. Every park, every rice paddy, every patch of pine and permafrost: all will be imaged anew, daily, at medium resolution.

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I thought this was the game Google wanted to be in by buying Terra Bella. “For a few years” is nice, and presumably cheaper than owning the company.
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Just launched: Near-real-time Rainfall API • Defra digital


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To complement our (the Environment Agency’s) publication of open data on river levels, we have now made near real-time rainfall data available via an API.


The data comes from about 1000 automatic rain gauges across England.

This data is already used by the Environment Agency to assess water resources and provide local Flood Warning and Forecasting services. The data from some gauges is also used by the Met Office to calibrate rainfall radar data, which in return improves our Flood Forecast predictions.

We are publishing this data openly as it has the potential for a wide range of uses externally such as flood forecasting, farming, and recreation.

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Yet another win for the Free Our Data campaign. Getting the Environment Agency to open up flood data was one of the toughest tasks; it took all the floods a couple of years ago to persuade it, but more importantly central government, that the data should be open.

The API itself is pretty straightforward – no API key required at present. There’s also historic data in CSV format.
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Ministers accused of “out-trumping Trump” over use of health data to track alleged illegal immigrants • BuzzFeed News

James Ball:

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The NHS is now required to hand the Home Office the addresses of people it suspects of being in the country illegally, BuzzFeed News can reveal, under a new policy that has led to the government being accused of “out-Trumping Donald Trump”.

The data sharing deal, which makes it much easier for the Home Office to use NHS information in tracking down people who have overstayed their visas or are accused of immigration offences, has been condemned by health charities as causing a major risk to public health, as well as to people who may be deterred from seeking treatment for serious illness.

BuzzFeed News has seen letters from the Home Office to GPs that have led in at least one case to people being wrongly refused basic healthcare to which they were entitled, as well as communications asking doctors to hand over the details of their patients so the Home Office could take action against them.

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There’s lots more detail; it’s a clear datagrab by the Home Office, going after information that arguably it doesn’t have any right to. But this move is almost surely out of reach of the Information Commissioner, because it’s done by the government.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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