Start Up: YouTube’s extreme views, the US travel solution, Singhal out at Uber, the tablet conundrum, and more


Sony should be able to capture moments like this with its new smartphone camera – if you’re quick enough. Photo by nebarnix on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How YouTube serves as the content engine of the internet’s dark side • BuzzFeed News

Joseph Bernstein:

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All this is a far cry from the platform’s halcyon days of 2006 and George Allen’s infamous “Macaca” gaffe. Back then, it felt reasonable to hope the site would change politics by bypassing a rose-tinted broadcast media filter to hold politicians accountable. As recently as 2012, Mother Jones posted to YouTube hidden footage of Mitt Romney discussing the “47%” of the electorate who would never vote for him, a video that may have swung the election. But by the time the 2016 campaign hit its stride, and a series of widely broadcast, ugly comments by then-candidate Trump didn’t keep him out of office, YouTube’s relationship to politics had changed.

Today, it fills the enormous trough of right-leaning conspiracy and revisionist historical content into which the vast, ravening right-wing social internet lowers its jaws to drink. Shared widely everywhere from white supremacist message boards to chans to Facebook groups, these videos constitute a kind of crowdsourced, predigested ideological education, offering the “Truth” about everything from Michelle Obama’s real biological sex (760,000 views!) to why medieval Islamic civilization wasn’t actually advanced.

Frequently, the videos consist of little more than screenshots of a Reddit “investigation” laid out chronologically, set to ominous music. Other times, they’re very simple, featuring a man in a sparse room speaking directly into his webcam, or a very fast monotone narration over a series of photographs with effects straight out of iMovie. There’s a financial incentive for vloggers to make as many videos as cheaply they can; the more videos you make, the more likely one is to go viral.

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The mystery to me is why there aren’t gigantic left-wing conspiracy video makers. Or are there, and we just haven’t heard about them? (Which would imply they aren’t gigantic, wouldn’t it?)

YouTube’s role in all this has been overlooked, though, I think. Fake news sites are one thing, but YouTube’s “related” links and built-in automatic play is the sort of thing that can take you quite far afield very quickly. (That might be worth an experiment.)
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Uber’s SVP of engineering is out after he did not disclose he left Google in a dispute over a sexual harassment allegation • Recode

Kara Swisher:

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Amit Singhal has left his job at Uber as its SVP of engineering because he did not disclose to the car-hailing company that he left Google a year earlier after top executives there informed him of an allegation of sexual harassment from an employee that an internal investigation had found “credible.”

Singhal was asked to resign by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick this morning.

Uber execs found out about the situation after Recode informed them of the chain of events between Singhal and the search giant this week.

Sources at Uber said that the company did extensive background checks of Singhal and that it did not uncover any hint of the circumstances of his departure from Google. Singhal disputed the allegation to Google execs at the time.

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Of course this story would be by Swisher: she is basically Silicon Valley’s router, via whom every bit of information eventually travels. This is an astonishing tale. Singhal’s departure from Google in February 2016 was a surprise. There sure isn’t anything about assault claims, unfounded or otherwise, in his goodbye letter.
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Donald Trump’s ‘shadow president’ in Silicon Valley • POLITICO

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“Once Election Day came and went, Peter Thiel was a major force in the transition,” said a senior Trump campaign aide. “When you have offices and you bring staff with you and you attend all the meetings, then you have a lot of power.” At the Presidio, the old Army fort in San Francisco where Thiel’s investment firms are housed, many of his employees have taken to calling him “the shadow president.”

The notion is not entirely absurd. If Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, is one ideological pillar of the Trump White House, Thiel, operating from outside the administration, is the other. Bannon’s ideology is a sort of populist nationalism, while Thiel’s is tech-centric: He believes progress is dependent on a revolution in technology that has been largely stymied by government regulation.

Thiel is a contrarian by nature, and his support for Trump was a signature long-shot bet that is paying big dividends in terms of access to and influence on the new administration.

Trump’s surprise victory in November also gave Thiel a renewed faith in the possibilities of politics, and he has worked around the clock to push friends and associates into positions that will give them sway over science and technology policy, an area he believes has been routinely neglected under previous administrations.

That helps to explain why Jim O’Neill, a managing director at Thiel’s venture capital firm, Mithril Capital Management, is now being considered to run the Food and Drug Administration. O’Neill served at the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration but has no medical background. He has argued that drugs should not have to go through clinical trials to prove their efficacy before they are sold to consumers.

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Could we instead test them on Thiel? Or O’Neill. I’m not fussy.
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Trump administration re-evaluating self-driving car guidance • Reuters

David Shepardson:

»

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on Sunday she was reviewing self-driving vehicle guidance issued by the Obama administration and urged companies to explain the benefits of automated vehicles to a skeptical public.

The guidelines, which were issued in September, call on automakers to voluntarily submit details of self-driving vehicle systems to regulators in a 15-point “safety assessment” and urge states to defer to the federal government on most vehicle regulations.

Automakers have raised numerous concerns about the guidance, including that it requires them to turn over significant data, could delay testing by months and lead to states making the voluntary guidelines mandatory…

…Chao said she was “very concerned” about the potential impact of automated vehicles on employment. There are 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers alone and millions of others employed in driving-related occupations.

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That last bit suggest that self-driving vehicles might not get the clear road they’re hoping for.
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Samsung’s disjointed OS strategy poses a hurdle for users • PCWorld

Agam Shah:

»

Samsung has taken a siloed approach to product development, said Werner Goertz, lead Samsung analyst at Gartner. The strategy is deeply rooted in the company’s flawed organizational structure, in which divisions often compete instead of cooperating, producing products that don’t work the same way.

Unlike at Apple, Goertz said, “there is a lack of coherence, consistency, and a comprehensive user experience. Over time it’ll be important to have a consistent user experience.”

The new Galaxy Books, for example, highlight the lack of unity in the company’s VR strategy. Samsung’s Gear VR headset works with some Android Galaxy handsets, but the company has no Windows-based VR device that connects to the new Galaxy Books.

Samsung declined to comment on whether it is developing a VR headset for its Windows devices. But the company’s goals appear to include the development of a multipurpose headset that could work with Windows as well as Android devices, and possibly a separate, untethered headset.

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The tablet computer is growing up • Tech.pinions

Ben Bajarin:

»

In a research study we did in the second half of 2016 on consumers usage and sentiment around PCs and tablets, 67% of consumers had not even considered replacing their PC/Mac with an iPad or Android tablet.

As you may have seen, the tablets trend line is not encouraging.

While it is true the PC trendline isn’t much better, over the past year or so a fascinating counter-trend has been happening in the PC industry. The average selling price of PCs is actually increasing. In the midst of the tablet decline, many consumers are realizing they still need a traditional laptop or desktop and are spending more on such computers than in many years past. Our research suggests a key reason is because consumers now understand they want a PC which will last since they will likely keep it for 6 years or more. They understand spending to get a quality product, one that won’t break frequently or be a customer support hassle, is in their best interests and they are spending more money on PCs than ever before. This single insight is a key source of my concern for the tablet category.

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As he notes, anyone who has a workflow set up on a PC is probably going to be reluctant to set up a new one on an iPad.
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Stop fabricating travel security advice • Medium

“The Grugq” (who is, convincingly, an information security researcher):

»

Recently travel to the US has become even more stressful as CBP have been more aggressively exercising their authority to examine digital devices. Their theory goes something like “we can open a cargo container to check whats inside therefore we can open a digital device to check whats inside.” Along with the apparent increase in searching traveller’s laptops and phones, there has been a rise in amateur smuggling suggestions (seemingly by US citizens who aren’t exposed to any risk at the border.) This advice is terrible, dangerous and possibly endangers anyone reckless enough to follow it.

Rather than collecting the garbage advice, I’ll bundle it all into a generic set of terrible ideas and the flawed beliefs that underpin them. To be absolutely crystal clear — DO NOT DO THESE THINGS!

«

His suggestion of what you should do is simpler: “Use travel hardware: laptop, iPad, iPhone. Take only the data you need. Create accounts for travel gear. Use different user/pass.”
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Sony Xperia XZ Premium announced: 4K HDR screen, memory-stacked camera, and Snapdragon 835 • The Verge

Vlad Savov:

»

Beside the (very) nice display, Sony’s new flagship phone also has a new camera system called Motion Eye. The curious thing with this setup is that Sony has embedded fast memory right into the camera stack, allowing it to produce another world first for phones: super-slow motion of 960fps at 720p resolution. This rapid burst lasts for only 0.18 seconds, so technically you’re only capturing something closer to 180 frames, but the effect is still quite compelling when stretched out to a regular 30fps. I can imagine myself capturing water splashes and other blink-of-an-eye moments just for fun. And fun is, after all, what modern cameras are primarily about.

The addition of the extra memory also helps Sony to start buffering shots as soon as the camera detects motion in the frame — so that when you press the shutter button, there’s absolutely no lag, the camera will just pull the image it was already taking at that moment. This is the sort of system that will rely heavily on good autofocus, and Sony is bringing back the triple-sensor system from the Xperia XZ: there’s laser AF, an RGBC infrared sensor for adjusting white balance on the fly, and an updated ExmorRS image sensor. The latter now has 19% larger pixels, stepping down resolution to 19 megapixels. Sony’s Bionz image processing engine has also been upgraded with better motion detection and noise reduction.

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A fifth of a second? That’s really going to require amazingly precise timing. Mistime your button press, and you’ve missed it. Notable that Sony is going after the camera element, though.

Of note: Sony is the only Android OEM beside Samsung that I know is making an operating profit on its phones. (Huawei might be, but it’s unlikely.)
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Intel on the outside: the rise of artificial intelligence is creating new variety in the chip market, and trouble for Intel • The Economist

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This unipolar world [of Intel processors] is starting to crumble. Processors are no longer improving quickly enough to be able to handle, for instance, machine learning and other AI applications, which require huge amounts of data and hence consume more number-crunching power than entire data centres did just a few years ago. Intel’s customers, such as Google and Microsoft together with other operators of big data centres, are opting for more and more specialised processors from other companies and are designing their own to boot.

Nvidia’s GPUs are one example. They were created to carry out the massive, complex computations required by interactive video games. GPUs have hundreds of specialised “cores” (the “brains” of a processor), all working in parallel, whereas CPUs have only a few powerful ones that tackle computing tasks sequentially. Nvidia’s latest processors boast 3,584 cores; Intel’s server CPUs have a maximum of 28.

The company’s lucky break came in the midst of one of its near-death experiences during the 2008-09 global financial crisis. It discovered that hedge funds and research institutes were using its chips for new purposes, such as calculating complex investment and climate models. It developed a coding language, called CUDA, that helps its customers program its processors for different tasks. When cloud computing, big data and AI gathered momentum a few years ago, Nvidia’s chips were just what was needed.

Every online giant uses Nvidia GPUs to give their AI services the capability to ingest reams of data from material ranging from medical images to human speech. The firm’s revenues from selling chips to data-centre operators trebled in the past financial year, to $296m.

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Just who are these 300 ‘scientists’ telling Trump to burn the climate? • The Guardian

John Abraham:

»

If you read the headlines, it might have seemed impressive: “300 Scientists Tell Trump to Leave UN Climate Agreement.” Wow, 300 scientists. That’s a lot right? Actually, it’s a pitiful list.

First of all, hardly anyone on the list was a climate scientist; many were not even natural scientists. It is almost as though anyone with a college degree (and there are about 21 million enrolled in higher education programs just in the USA) was qualified to sign that letter.

Okay but what about the signers of the letter? Surely they are experts in the field? Not so much. It was very difficult to find the list of signers online however I was able to acquire it with some help. See for yourself – Google “300 scientists letter climate change” in the past week. You will see many stories in the press, but try finding the actual letter or the list of names. The version I obtained was dated February 23, 2017 which helps narrow your searching. In an era of Dr. Google, it is unbelievable that the letter itself was not made more available.

Okay but let’s get to the central issue. These 300 scientists must be pretty good at climate science, right? Well let’s just go through the list, alphabetically.

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This is excellent journalism – the sort that is so rare. WattsUpWithThat, a climate change denial site, has the letter and the list of signatories. Would be wonderful to crowdsource the precise qualifications of all the signatories. The letter includes the deathless phrase “carbon dioxide is not a pollutant”. Imagine your own experiments to persuade them otherwise.
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Popcorntime offers victims a choice: pay the ransom or infect your friends • Security TC

Eric Vanderburg:

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PopcornTime is a newly-discovered form or ransomware that is still in the development stages but operates off a disturbing principle: Victims who have their files encrypted by PopcornTime can agree to pay the ransom, or they can choose to send the ransomware to friends. If two or more of those friends become infected and pay the ransom, the original victim gets their files decrypted for free.

The process is reminiscent of the movie, “The Ring,” where victims who had watched a film had seven days to make a copy of a killer movie, or they would die.

Researchers on the MalwareHunterTeam discovered PopcornTime, which shouldn’t be confused with another application with the same name that is used for streaming and downloading movie torrents.

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Confusion is probably part of the plan, though. It feels like an awful psychological experiment.
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FCC to halt rule that protects your private data from security breaches • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The Federal Communications Commission plans to halt implementation of a privacy rule that requires ISPs to protect the security of its customers’ personal information.

The data security rule is part of a broader privacy rulemaking implemented under former Chairman Tom Wheeler but opposed by the FCC’s new Republican majority. The privacy order’s data security obligations are scheduled to take effect on March 2, but Chairman Ajit Pai wants to prevent that from happening.

The data security rule requires ISPs and phone companies to take “reasonable” steps to protect customers’ information—such as Social Security numbers, financial and health information, and Web browsing data—from theft and data breaches.

“Chairman Pai is seeking to act on a request to stay this rule before it takes effect on March 2,” an FCC spokesperson said in a statement to Ars. 

The rule would be blocked even if a majority of commissioners supported keeping them in place, because the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau can make the decision on its own.

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Amazing. Just amazing.
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Fitbit defends step goal after experts criticise 10,000 a day target as meaningless • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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“Fitbit’s mission to help people lead healthier, more active lives by empowering them with data, inspiration, and guidance to reach their goals,” a spokesman said.

“We understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ option in fitness, so our users are able to customize all of their health and fitness goals, including steps.”

It comes after experts said many apps and fitness devices have no real evidence base, and that the 10,000 steps a day goal was based on a small study of Japanese men dating back to 1960.

“Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message ‘you did 10,000 steps today’,” Dr Greg Hager, an expert in computer science at Johns Hopkins University, told delegates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.

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There are steps, and there are steps.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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