Start Up: WhatsApp’s Syrian tale, Maude on government, why US airports suck, iPhone 8 rumours, and more

Getting into some shops at night might involve a facial recognition test. Photo by Nick Kenrick on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Another beauty, it’s like the lovely uranium. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Syrian history is unfolding on Whatsapp • Backchannel

Lauren Bohn:


Ahmed stood next Rashed in the middle of the German woods that night in 2015, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He showed me a text from his daughter. His eyes were filled with tears. He put the phone in his pocket. He couldn’t even look at it.

👭👫 🚣 🚢 👭👫 🇩🇪 💋

When your four-year-old daughter, who doesn’t know how to write yet, wants to text you, she sends you a string of emojis with an urgent wish: to hop on a boat for Greece with her mother, brother, and sister, and travel to Germany, where one day you will all be together again. WhatsApp bridges the shortest distance back home to Syria.

In Istanbul, Ahmed’s 13-year-old son Ruby had become the family’s breadwinner, working 12-hour days at a shirt factory to help his parents with rent money. His schooling stalled in second grade when his home city of Aleppo devolved into a battlefield.


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Facebook’s AI unlocks the ability to search photos by what’s in them • TechCrunch

John Mannes:


Initially used to improve the experience for visually impaired members of the Facebook community, the company’s Lumos computer vision platform is now powering image content search for all users. This means you can now search for images on Facebook with key words that describe the contents of a photo, rather than being limited by tags and captions.

To accomplish the task, Facebook trained an ever-fashionable deep neural network on tens of millions of photos. Facebook’s fortunate in this respect because its platform is already host to billions of captioned images. The model essentially matches search descriptors to features pulled from photos with some degree of probability.


Won’t be long – a couple of years? – before you’ll be able to do this on your phone with ease.
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The West’s largest coal-fired power plant is closing. Not even Trump can save it • The Washington Post

Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson:


As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to help revive the struggling coal industry.

It’s looking like a tough promise to keep.

In the past three weeks, owners of two of the nation’s biggest coal-fired power plants have announced plans to shut them down, potentially idling hundreds of workers. One plant in Arizona is the largest coal-fired facility in the western United States.

“[We’re] bringing back jobs, big league,” President Trump said Tuesday after signing legislation that would scrap requirements for natural resources companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. “We’re bringing them back at the plant level. We’re bringing them back at the mine level. The energy jobs are coming back.”

Yet even with his efforts to roll back Obama-era energy regulations, a lot of coal jobs won’t ever return, mainly because of harsh economic realities.


Again, the laws of economic gravity are inescapable. Wishing – and blustering – won’t change them.
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Channel 4 News editor: Facebook is paying us a ‘minuscule’ amount for our 2 billion video views • The Drum

Ian Burrell:


At a recent panel event on fake news, hosted by Edinburgh International TV Festival, [Channel 4 News editor Ben] de Pear questioned Facebook on how much money it was making from the traffic generated by false stories. He has yet to receive an answer. “For every pound fake news has earned for the fake news publisher, Facebook has made at least the same amount of money,” he says now in an interview with The Drum in his newsroom office. “How much money have you (Facebook) made from fake news? What have you done with it? And how much are you spending on combating fake news? Facebook are doing a very good PR job at the moment of looking like they are doing the right thing [on fake news] but they have to accept that people have been able to exploit the freedom of their platform and that people have made lots of money from it and so have Facebook.”

The subject is, potentially, of existential importance to Channel 4 News because of the still unresolved government threat of privatising Channel 4, which provides the news outlet’s budget. Doubts have been raised as to whether a future buyer would be so generous. “Right now we don’t need to [make money from online video] but in the future if Channel 4 was to be privatised maybe we would,” says de Pear. “Facebook are very proud that we are there but they have yet to come up with a way to fund what we do. The stuff we do is unique and very professionally done. There’s no way that the money you get from Facebook could ever pay for a fraction of what it costs.”


Perverse incentives keep fake news going.
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Lord Francis Maude: no longer so frank • Diginomica

Derek du Preez got a terrific interview with former Cabinet Office minister Francis (now Lord) Maude:


Part of the problem with departments building their own digital capability and working independently is, you’ve got to ask yourself, is that what we actually want government to look like? The other important question is: is it even possible to change the institutions we have, given the amount of legacy in place (technology, people, culture, legal and historical)?

When I put this to Lord Maude, he agreed, and said that Whitehall would absolutely not look how it does today if it could be designed again. He explained:


Within central government there’s absolutely no way you would create these huge, free standing departments with their own kind of life. If you were starting again with the technology that’s available now, you wouldn’t have separate departments.

You would have ministers with strong offices, able to draw on a common pool of advice, you’d have deep pools of expertise, but you would not want everything siloed in the way it is now. You’d have a single technology platform across government. You would have the single canonical data registries underpinning them, instead of every department having its own databases – often conflicting, overlapping and with very poor quality data. You would do everything differently.


And unsurprisingly, Maude pointed to the data silos (and the power that they are perceived to hold) as a key problem for unlocking transformation across Whitehall. The government’s data strategy has been lacking in recent months, and yet it underpins much of the transformation plans – in particular the Government-as-a-Platform agenda. Maude said:


Departments guard their databases incredibly carefully. The number of times we wanted to share data instantaneously, for things like pursuing fraud and error, and we were told it wasn’t legally permitted. The most commonly words heard in my office were ‘show me the chapter and verse’.

And someone would come back shuffling their feet a bit later saying that they thought they weren’t allowed, but actually they are. Getting the data out of the hands of departments, which guard it as the source of their power and influence, is an essential thing to do. But we are a million miles away from that.



I disagreed quite a lot with Maude’s politics, but have huge admiration for his ability to really get things done – in particular, getting bureaucracy out of the way of people who actually could get stuff done. The UK government is truly poorer for his absence. His ideas here ought to be absorbed by everyone in governments everywhere.
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Why America’s airports suck • Institutional Investor

Leanna Orr:


America’s airports feel like bus stations because, broadly speaking, they are funded like bus stations. They don’t rely on taxpayer money, nor are they allowed to turn profits. Anything they earn must be reinvested into the facilities. The trouble for US airports is that what they earn – through pennies on pretzels, rent from airlines, and a $4.50-per-ticket charge – isn’t nearly enough to keep pre-9/11 facilities safe, functioning, and ready for the 21st century. Overseas and in Canada airports have solved this problem by bringing in private investors, selling off operator rights, and taking control of, and often raising, the user fee. Those tactics either aren’t allowed in the US or they haven’t been exercised. The result: places like LaGuardia. All day every day, thousands of people file onto airplanes headed to the US guaranteed of one thing: Wherever they’re leaving is better than what lies ahead. LaGuardia Airport is North America’s worst, the perverse jewel in New York City’s Triple Crown of terrible airports. LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International, and John F. Kennedy International often sweep the bottom of US rankings. LaGuardia, remarkably, has earned unanimous condemnation from airport nerds as the ‘worst in America,’ uniting Travel + Leisure editors with the Points Guy, JD Power and Associates, and Frommer’s. T+L, perhaps the most discerning of the publications, gave ‘dilapidated’ LaGuardia the ‘dubious honor of ranking the worst for the check-in and security process, the worst for baggage handling, the worst when it comes to providing wi-fi, the worst at staff communication, and the worst design and cleanliness.’ It’s also worst for on-time performance and cancellations, says the Points Guy, and has somehow declined in overall quality since 2014. Welcome to the greatest city in the world.

‘If I blindfolded someone and took them at two in the morning into the airport in Hong Kong and said, “Where do you think you are?’ they’d say, “This must be America; it’s a modern airport,” Joe Biden, then vice president, told a crowd in Philadelphia at a 2014 Amtrak engine unveiling. (With infrastructure photo ops, US politicians have to take what they can get.) ‘If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you would think, “I must be in some third-world country.” The audience broke out in laughter. Biden pressed the point. ‘I’m not joking.’


Oh man, remember Joe Biden? Anyhow, how weird that the US doesn’t run its airports for profit; that’s the exact reverse of the UK.
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Latest report suggests iPhone 8 screen features higher 521 PPI density, 3x Retina scaling like Plus models • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:


Last night, reliable Apple analyst KGI’s Ming-Chi Kuo posted his latest assessment of the iPhone 8 detailing the addition of a virtual function area replacing the physical Home button. However, the report also included screen resolution specs which help draw some additional insight.

KGI’s numbers imply that the iPhone 8 will have a pixel density around 521 PPI, far higher than the existing iPhone lineup (iPhone 7 PPI is ~320). It also seems likely that Apple will use Retina assets at 3x scale, packing Plus features into a body the same size as the 4.7in phones …

The report says that the area of the screen dedicated to the app content and home screen has a resolution of 2436×1125. The current iPhone 7 has a screen resolution of 1334×750.

On a raw pixel count basis, this means the iPhone 8 main screen resolution is almost twice that of the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone 7. Taking KGI’s metrics that this screen region will measure at 5.15in, this works out to a pixels-per-inch measurement of 512.

If the numbers turn out to be accurate, the iPhone 8 would tout a pixel density greater than both the 4.7in and 5.5in iPhones, which have 325 PPI and 401 PPI, respectively. This will be welcome news for Android users looking to switch to iPhone, who have complained at the 4.7-inch iPhone’s low-resolution display relative to other smartphones on the market.


Re this “virtual function area”, I’m unsure how well it would work if it’s like the TouchBar on the MacBook Pro. Do you want to have multiple distracting icons on the bottom of the phone where you could mistakenly press one?
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Acquisitions in tech have a checkered history • Tech.pinions

Jan Dawson, following up on the awful Bloomberg article from yesterday which suggested Apple should drop nine figures on, well, something:


Some companies seem to fare particularly poorly. Microsoft has three of the four big failures, with Alphabet having the other. But it’s also done well with some deals and all the big failures happened during the Steve Ballmer era rather than under new CEO Satya Nadella. Alphabet’s deals have mostly done well, Facebook’s are a mixed bag, and Samsung’s only big acquisition looks smart on paper but hasn’t even closed yet. Apple has only the one pretty successful acquisition on the list.

The reality is M&A is a risky business, with one of the biggest challenges being cultural fit. That’s particularly challenging at Apple because it sees its culture as both unique and uniquely important. That means smaller deals for technology and tight-knit teams of people are a better fit than massive established businesses with large workforces. For other companies with more generic engineering and software cultures, such acquisitions may be easier.

But it’s also fair to say the biggest failures include several attempts to use big acquisitions as levers for massive strategic shifts, while the most successful acquisitions have often been logical extensions of existing businesses. Skype, Nokia, and aQuantive at Microsoft all fell into the former category, for example, whereas Zappos at Amazon, YouTube and DoubleClick at Google, and Instagram at Facebook were all fairly adjacent businesses. Big strategic shifts have rarely been enabled by taking on entirely new and different businesses – those are often best established through organic change or technology acquisitions which enable broader changes.
To me, it looks like the smartest companies in this group understand this and are very discerning about the acquisitions they make.


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Missouri store using facial recognition to keep doors locked to masked robbers • CW39 NewsFix

Mike Hubberd:


Overnight robberies can be terrifying, even deadly. But now some stores in Missouri are fighting back with a high tech crime fighter: facial recognition.

Facial recognition technology is being used to help keep late night store clerks and customers safe.

“It’s in addition to the cameras we already have,” store manager Chad Leemon said.

The way it works, is at night, clerks put up signs warning customers that facial recognition software is in use, and to please look at the above camera for entry. Only by showing your face will you get a green light to come inside.

“Don’t forget to look up!” Leemon said. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to get in.”

If you cover your face with a mask or even a hand, the doors will not open!

The technology also allows stores to keep a profile of faces in their database, so ‘known’ shoplifters can be identified by face.

“They’re gonna leave. They’re not gonna steal. You’re not going to have the violent act behind it,” a retired police officer Joe Spiess said.

Spiess is a senior partner with the company “Blue Line Technology”  that created the new face-printing technique.


No word on quite how accurate this facial recognition technology actually is, though.
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Make Trump Tweets Eight Again!! • The Daily Show

“We made a browser extension that converts Trump’s tweets back into their rightful state: a child’s scribble.”

Notable in passing: Chrome or Firefox. Microsoft’s Edge (and Apple’s Safari) not allowed to play, though they also do extensions.
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How to turn Trump’s Twitter account against him in 10 seconds or less • Medium

Mike Elgan, back in December:


I follow the president-elect’s @RealDonaldTrump account on Twitter. I also use TweetBot on my desktop. So I see tweets instantly.
A few days ago, Trump tweeted this:

I responded by tweeting this as a reply:

I did it quickly, too. Within 10 seconds of his tweet.

That comment got more engagement than anything I’ve ever posted on Twitter. It got over 800,000 impressions and 24,000 engagements.

That means 800,000 people got my take on Trump’s tweet. Not bad!

Also, in the 24 hours after that comment, my Twitter following grew by more than 300 people. Of course, after such tweets I get flooded with thousands of replies, many of them nasty, illiterate and hateful.

The bottom line is that the 10 seconds following any Trump tweet represents a rare window of opportunity to reach the people who are paying attention to Trump.

Think about that.


Sure that this will turn into much more than a spectator sport over the next few months. We’re only going to have to bear it for a few months, right?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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