Start Up: the female bot question, Fitbit off pace, Bangalore’s techie times, the fact problem, and more

Wondering how long it will take to get to work? There’s an API for that. Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Alexa, Siri, Cortana: the problem with all-female digital assistants • WSJ

Joanna Stern:


So if we can’t have genderless helpers, why did we end up with so many more gal bots than guy bots? The answer is pretty simple: Both women and men find the female voice more welcoming and warm.

In 2008, Karl MacDorman, a professor at Indiana University who specializes in human-computer interaction, set up an experiment with some fellow researchers. When they had men and women listen to male and female synthesized voices, both groups said the female voices were “warmer.” The most interesting part? In further tests of less voluntary responses, women showed a stronger implicit preference for the female voice. (Men showed no significant implicit preference for either gender.)

Amazon and Microsoft found the same preference for the female voice in their market research. “For our objectives—building a helpful, supportive, trustworthy assistant—a female voice was the stronger choice,” says a Microsoft spokeswoman. Amazon says it tested several voices with customers and internal groups and found that Alexa’s female voice was preferred.

Siri may default to a female voice in the U.S. but Apple provides both male and female voice options for iPhone and iPad users to choose from. In fact, on iPhones where the language is Arabic, French, Dutch or British English, Siri defaults to a male voice.


Odd how Americans prefer the female voice. Maybe this needs a wider study.
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Fitbit attempts to reassure investors after holiday sales slump • FT

Tim Bradshaw:


Fitbit attempted to reassure investors that a shortfall in holiday sales was just a temporary problem, after its unit sales fell by a fifth in the fourth quarter of last year.

The San Francisco-based company said it swung to a net loss of $146.3m in the three months ending in December, in full results published on Wednesday.

Despite concerns about the longer-term future for wearable devices, Fitbit said its problems in the second half of last year were due to saturation among “early adopters” and discounting by competitors, as consumers swapped basic fitness trackers for more feature-rich products such as smartwatches.

Sales of Fitbit’s wristbands grew just 3% last year to 22m units, while the number of people actively using its devices grew 37% year on year to 23.3m.


Its forecast for this current quarter is $270m-$290m – about 10% below analysts’ estimates. Cutting staff. Trying to move to smartwatches while cheaper competitors eat the bottom end. It’s going to have to do this well or it’s dead.
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Maniac killers of the Bangalore IT department • Bloomberg

Ben Crair:


“TECHIE’S WIFE MURDERED” read the headlines in both the Hindu and the Bangalore Mirror. “TECHIE STABS FRIEND’S WIFE TO DEATH” ran in the Deccan Herald. To read the Indian newspapers regularly is to believe the software engineer is the country’s most cursed figure. Almost every edition carries a gruesome story involving a techie accused of homicide, rape, burglary, blackmail, assault, injury, suicide, or another crime. When techies are the victims, it’s just as newsworthy. The Times of India, the country’s largest English-language paper, has carried “TECHIE DIES IN FREAK ACCIDENT” and “MAN HELD FOR PUSHING TECHIE FROM TRAIN”; in the Hindu, readers found “TEACHER CHOPS OFF FINGERS OF TECHIE HUSBAND” and “TECHIE DIED AFTER BEING FORCE-FED CYANIDE.” A long-standing journalistic adage says, “If it bleeds, it leads.” In India, if it codes, it explodes.

The epicenter of techie tragedy is Bangalore, a city in the southern state of Karnataka that bills itself as India’s Silicon Valley. Bangalore has more startups than any other city in the country and is home to Apple, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle, in addition to big domestic information technology companies such as Infosys and Wipro. More than 10% of Bangalore’s 10.5 million residents work in tech, giving journalists plenty of unfortunate events to sensationalize: “ASSAULT OVER BANANA SPLIT: 3 TECHIES HELD”; “DEPRESSED BANGALORE TECHIE INJURES 24 IN SWORD ATTACK SPREE.”


Wonderful observational journalism; and the appearance of “techie” isn’t necessarily a compliment.
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TravelTime Maps • TravelTime


What is this?

A search tool for anyone wanting to find locations by travel time, rather than distance. It can filter points of interest by travel time and show more than one travel shape at a time. It was originally made to showcase the TravelTime API, but the tool is free for anyone to use.


This is a product that’s really useful for people considering buying or renting property; the idea of “travel time” maps goes back some way, but one of the first implementations was by (I believe) Tom Steinberg’s MySociety. TravelTime has turned the concept into a business, and you can get an API key. It covers public transport, driving, walking and cycling. (Shouldn’t Apple be licensing this?)
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Why facts don’t change our minds • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:


an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.


Which leads you on to political choices and the difficulty of changing peoples’ minds; but also to the objectively poor (in evolutionary terms) existence of confirmation bias.
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Smartphones to become pocket doctors after scientists discover camera flash and microphone can be used to diagnose illness

Sarah Knapton:


Professor Shwetak Patel, of the University of Washington is currently devising an app which can detect red blood cell levels simply by placing a finger over the camera and flash, so that a bright beam of light shines through the skin. Such a blood screening tool could quickly spot anaemia. 

He also believes that in future users will be able to bang phones against their bones to check for osteoporosis and use the microphone to test lung function. 

Speaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston, Prof Patel said: “If you think about the capabilities on a mobile device, if you look at the camera, the flash, the microphone, those are all getting better and better. 

“Those sensors on the mobile phone can actually be repurposed in interesting new ways where you can use those for diagnosing certain kinds of diseases. 

“You can do pulmonary assessment using the microphone on a mobile device, for diagnosing asthma. If think about people having an asthma attack, if you could monitor their lung function at home you can actually get in front of that, before somebody has an asthma attack.”


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Android Wear with an iPhone still can’t compete with the Apple Watch • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


After spending a week using an LG Watch Style (the little one, not the giant LG Watch Sport) with an iPhone, I came away from the experience unimpressed. Yes, there are a few things that are possible now that weren’t before. You can directly install third-party watchfaces now, a big benefit over the Apple Watch. You can install little weather widgets and fitness apps. And thankfully, you can do so by visiting the Google Play Store from your laptop’s web browser rather than trying to scroll the tiny little watch screen. There aren’t a ton of apps available yet, but that’s hopefully something that will improve over time. You can query the Google Assistant, which is often more accurate and helpful than Siri.

But for everything that works, there are several things that really don’t. Some of it is because of those Apple policies: there’s simply no conceivable world in which Apple is going to allow third-party smartwatches to access iMessages beyond seeing incoming notifications arrive, for example. You can reply to messages from some other apps — but only those that have reply options properly built into their notification on the phone. Even then, you won’t get the sort of rich message history you can get elsewhere.

I could be comfortable with those limitations — but there are dozens of others, most of them self-inflicted.


I’d love to know how many people are using Android Wear watches with iPhones.
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Manifestos and Monopolies • Stratechery

Ben Thompson weighs in on Zuckerberg’s “manifesto”:


It all sounds so benign, and given Zuckerberg’s framing of the disintegration of institutions that held society together, helpful, even. And one can even argue that just as the industrial revolution shifted political power from localized fiefdoms and cities to centralized nation-states, the Internet revolution will, perhaps, require a shift in political power to global entities. That seems to be Zuckerberg’s position:


Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.


There’s just one problem: first, Zuckerberg may be wrong; it’s just as plausible to argue that the ultimate end-state of the Internet Revolution is a devolution of power to smaller more responsive self-selected entities. And, even if Zuckerberg is right, is there anyone who believes that a private company run by an unaccountable all-powerful person that tracks your every move for the purpose of selling advertising is the best possible form said global governance should take?


At this point, Thompson is only getting warmed up.
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Portrait of a botnet • Medium

Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab:


On February 20, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, died unexpectedly in New York.

One minute after the news broke on the website of Kremlin broadcaster RT, and a minute before RT managed to tweet the news, a slew of Twitter accounts posted the newsflash with an identical “breaking news” caption.

Most of the accounts had a number of features in common: they were all highly active. They were all vocal supporters of US President Donald Trump. They had avatar pictures of attractive women in revealing outfits.

And they were all fake, set up to steer Twitter users to a money-making ad site.

The network they represent is neither large nor politically influential. It is nonetheless worth analyzing as an example of how commercial concerns can use, and abuse, political groups to drive their traffic.


The level of detail here is remarkable; but one also wonders why, if these folks can spot it so easily, Twitter can’t too. For all his talk about machine learning on the last quarterly analyst call earlier this month, Jack Dorsey doesn’t seem to be applying it to the places where it could matter.

For example:


The accounts’ specific behavior confirms this. As of February 21, all their recent tweets were posts of news content from a range of sources including Breitbart, the BBC, RT, Reuters and (bizarrely) local newspaper the Coventry Telegraph in the UK. The great majority of them tweeted the same stories, from the same sources, in the same order…

…The common theme between these accounts is therefore not a political stance, but the desire to generate revenue by attracting clicks.

Confirming that these accounts are the work of a single individual, eleven of them posted, as their pinned tweet, an identical shortened Google URL (


Nobody could spot that? Come on. (The redirect is to a Facebook page, which Twitter would know because every link posted there goes via
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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