Start Up: Amazon’s big outage, Google kills Pixel laptop, a USB-C iPhone?, the US’s new war on pot, and more


This might be the shape of future Alexa-powered call centres. But first you’d have to get it to work. Photo by Costa Rica Call Centres on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon AWS S3 outage is breaking things for a lot of websites and apps • TechCrunch

Darrell Etherington:

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The S3 outage is due to “high error rates with S3 in US-EAST-1,” according to Amazon’s AWS service health dashboard, which is where the company also says it’s working on “remediating the issue,” without initially revealing any further details.

Affected websites and services include Quora, newsletter provider Sailthru, Business Insider, Giphy, image hosting at a number of publisher websites, filesharing in Slack, and many more. Connected lightbulbs, thermostats and other IoT hardware is also being impacted, with many unable to control these devices as a result of the outage.

Amazon S3 is used by around 148,213 websites, and 121,761 unique domains, according to data tracked by SimilarTech, and its popularity as a content host concentrates specifically in the U.S. It’s used by 0.8% of the top 1 million websites, which is actually quite a bit smaller than CloudFlare, which is used by 6.2% of the top 1 million websites globally – and yet it’s still having this much of an effect.

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Be very interested to know what the cause is; it’s not clear at the moment. Some Apple services, Netflix, Expedia, The Verge and the US Securities and Exchange Commission also affected. Amazon S3 has quietly become the circulatory system of the internet.
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JPMorgan software does in seconds what took lawyers 360,000 hours • The Independent

Hugh Son:

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At JPMorgan, a learning machine is parsing financial deals that once kept legal teams busy for thousands of hours.

The program, called COIN, for Contract Intelligence, does the mind-numbing job of interpreting commercial-loan agreements that, until the project went online in June, consumed 360,000 hours of lawyers’ time annually. The software reviews documents in seconds, is less error-prone and never asks for vacation… [UK readers will note that this must be an American writing; a Brit would say ‘holiday’. – CA]

…As for COIN, the program has helped JPMorgan cut down on loan-servicing mistakes, most of which stemmed from human error in interpreting 12,000 new wholesale contracts per year, according to its designers.

JPMorgan is scouring for more ways to deploy the technology, which learns by ingesting data to identify patterns and relationships. The bank plans to use it for other types of complex legal filings like credit-default swaps and custody agreements. Someday, the firm may use it to help interpret regulations and analyze corporate communications.

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link to this extract


Trump tweets and the TV news stories behind them • CNNMoney

Tom Kludt and Tal Yellin:

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Whether from Trump Tower, his resort at Mar-a-Lago, or the White House Trump has reportedly spent a significant amount of time glued to the television screen, often firing out a response in nearly real-time to his millions of followers on Twitter.

Below, a running tally of each instance since Election Day in which the president’s tweet appears to have been prompted by something he had just seen on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN or another channel.

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There are quite a few of them. This is a smart idea. You could also predict what’s going to happen day by day.

Also: watching that crap isn’t what a president should do. He’s either too easily distracted or not doing the job.
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Google calls ‘time’ on the Pixel laptop • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

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In a small meeting with journalists at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Google’s senior vice president for hardware Rick Osterloh dropped a little bit of news: It looks like the Pixel laptop — Google’s premium Chromebook and the original product bearing the Pixel name — has hit the end of the line after just two iterations.

The Pixel brand these days is now being used for Google’s new line of smartphones, which have done pretty well in the market, although the company has had some issues with supply and keeping up with demand, Osterloh said.

There may be future products that use the Pixel name and concept of building Google products from the ground up, integrating Google’s software into Google’s own hardware, but he hinted that laptops are not likely to be one of those categories.

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Astonishing. So Google is giving up on its own products. Given that it is bringing Google Assistant to all Android phones, not just the Pixel phone – taking away its differentiation – how long does the latter have? This looks suspiciously like a change in strategy that has been decided quite recently.

Who’s going to trust a new Google product now?
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Amazon Echo may get Voice ID feature • Time.com

Lisa Eadicicco:

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The Seattle-based technology giant has been developing a feature that would allow the voice assistant that powers its Echo line of speakers to distinguish between individual users based on their voices, according to people familiar with Amazon’s Alexa strategy. The sources declined to be identified by name because they are not authorized to talk about the company’s future product plans. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

Alexa, like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, can interpret and respond to voice commands such as “How’s the weather?” or “What movies are playing tonight?” So far, though, none of the mainstream voice-enabled smart speakers have been able to distinguish who in a household is asking for something. Amazon’s new feature would match the person speaking to a voice sample, or “voice print,” to verify a person’s identity, according to a source. A primary account holder would be able to require a specific voice print to access certain commands. A user would, for example, be able to set it so that a parent’s voice would be required to make a credit card purchase or turn on the coffee machine through the Echo.

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Completely logical development, though tricky to make work. (So much depends on the acoustics of a location, apart from anything.) As Jan Dawson points out, this is the sort of thing you’d expect Google to have done first – but Amazon is lapping it (and Apple) on this.

Also notable: Amazon is either leakier than it used to be, or is briefing more than it used to do because it sees it as important to get Echo into as many homes as possible before Google.
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Google’s E2Email Gmail encryption looks a lot like vaporware • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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[Cryptography expert Matthew] Green, who has spoken to Google engineers about the project, says the End-to-End initiative never received the staffing necessary to push it forward. Today, he says, the total attention Google devotes to the project equates to a fraction of a single full-time staffer. “The upshot is that Google won’t be doing much more on end-to-end encryption,” Green says.

Google’s own security engineers, meanwhile, say that they’ve hardly abandoned their encryption push. But making email encryption easy, argues Google privacy and security product manager Stephan Somogyi, is far harder than it might seem to the public. Unlike WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, Gmail’s End-to-End project sought to bolt encryption onto email, an old protocol that still has to interoperate with billions of clients outside of Google’s control. And Somogyi points out that his engineers have also had to build and refine an entirely new library of crypto code in javascript, a necessary stepping stone for secure web-based encryption tools, and one widely believed to be unworkable a few years ago.

More recently, he says, the team has focused on the larger problem of key management—the tricky task of securely distributing, tracking, and looking up the unique encryption keys that allow users to decrypt encrypted messages and prove their identities. That problem has for decades dogged PGP, the encryption scheme Google bases its Gmail encryption project on. Google’s engineers are now working to solve it with a project called Key Transparency, along with researchers at Princeton, Yahoo, and Open Whisper Systems.

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Plus there’s the problem of people just forwarding unencrypted stuff, or replying without the encryption turned on. It’s colossally hard; Google seems to have been wildly overconfident in announcing it in 2014.
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This is how your hyperpartisan political news gets made • BuzzFeed News

Craig Silverman:

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The websites Liberal Society and Conservative 101 appear to be total opposites. The former publishes headlines such as “WOW, Sanders Just Brutally EVISCERATED Trump On Live TV. Trump Is Fuming.” Its conservative counterpart has stories like “Nancy Pelosi Just Had Mental Breakdown On Stage And Made Craziest Statement Of Her Career.”

So it was a surprise last Wednesday when they published stories that were almost exactly the same, save for a few notable word changes.

After CNN reported White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was “sidelined from television appearances,” both sites whipped up a post — and outrage — for their respective audiences. The resulting stories read like bizarro-world versions of each other — two articles with nearly identical words and tweets optimized for opposing filter bubbles. The similarity of the articles also provided a key clue BuzzFeed News followed to reveal a more striking truth: These for-the-cause sites that appeal to hardcore partisans are in fact owned by the same Florida company.

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I had been wondering if there weren’t hyperpartisan sites for the left. And of course, those enraged by Trump will be lured to them. (Reality might continue to disagree with what they read, though.)
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Apple’s next iPhone will have a curved screen • WSJ

Takashi Mochizuki with the (confirmed, now) revelation that there will be an OLED iPhone with a curved edge, a la Samsung Galaxy Edge, this year:

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The anticipation of an anniversary iPhone with OLED technology helped Apple’s share price climb to a record in February. The phone is expected to be priced at roughly $1,000, bringing the average selling price of an iPhone in Apple’s next fiscal year to $684 from $666, according to BMO Capital Markets.

So far, all iPhones have used liquid-crystal displays, long the standard for mobile devices and television sets.

People familiar with Apple’s plans said the iPhone releases this year would include two models with the traditional LCDs and a third one with the OLED screen.

They said Apple would introduce other updates including a USB-C port for the power cord and other peripheral devices, instead of the company’s original Lightning connector. The models would also do away with a physical home button, they said. Those updates would give the iPhone features already available on other smartphones.

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I don’t think it will be a USB-C port. I agree with Nati Shochat – it’s more likely that it’s a USB-C-to-Lightning cable, so it’s a USB-C charger. Going with USB-C for the port would mean disrupting the millions of Lightning-compatible ports out there, and kill the licensing fees for the “MfI” (Made for iOS) stuff.

Then again, every year it doesn’t change the Lightning port it becomes a little harder to switch to USB-C, if that is indeed its long-term aim.

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Sessions: Legal pot drives violent crime, statistics be damned • Thinkprogress

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On Monday, days after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters to expect stricter enforcement of federal pot law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recycled discredited drug war talking points in remarks of his own.

“I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions said. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

In reality, violent crime rates tend to decrease where marijuana is legalized.

Denver saw a 2.2% drop in violent crime rates in the year after the first legal recreational cannabis sales in Colorado. Overall property crime dropped by 8.9% in the same period there, according to figures from the Drug Policy Alliance. In Washington, violent crime rates dropped by 10% from 2011 to 2014. Voters legalized recreational marijuana there in 2012.

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The violent crime rate change doesn’t sound significantly different, but the property crime one does. Overall, there’s no link, broader data suggests. But we should maybe expect that Trump’s team won’t be interested in data, more just feelings.
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AWS takes aim at call centre industry • The Information

Kevin McLaughlin:

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Alexa is coming to customer call centers.

Amazon Web Services is preparing to sell software to help companies manage their call centers, based on software Amazon developed for its retail call centers, according to a person who’s been briefed on the plans. The new services also incorporate Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant to respond to questions from people on the phone, or sent via text, the person said.

AWS has begun pitching the new software, code-named Lily, to large insurance and health care customers, said the person. AWS is telling customers it may announce the product as early as mid-March. An AWS spokesman declined to comment.

The new product represents one of the biggest steps AWS has taken into enterprise apps—and the first big showcase for Alexa in the enterprise market. Thousands of companies around the world use call centers—called customer contact centers in industry jargon—to communicate with their customers via phone, email, instant messaging and other formats.

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Lots and lots of call centres already use voice recognition, though; you can make calls where you never deal with a human. (And lots where the human is more like a machine, and knows less.) What’s Alexa going to bring to this? To quote the article:

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How well Alexa will be able to understand the variety of questions coming from customers is sure to be a question facing AWS as it pitches the new service.

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Well, yes.
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Huawei staff fear cuts as smartphone profits disappoint • Reuters

Sijia Jiang and Harro Ten Wolde:

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Huawei, which rose rapidly to become the world’s third largest smartphone maker, is aiming to narrow the gap with leaders Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics. But the company faces challenges after losing its top spot in China, the world’s biggest market, to new contender Oppo last year.

Huawei’s mobile unit missed an internal profit target for 2016 even though revenues exceeded targets, Richard Yu, head of its consumer business division that includes mobile device operation, told Reuters in an interview at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress this week.

“It is still profitable but the profit margin is very low,” Yu said of the unit that contributes around one third to the group’s revenue.

In an internal memo sent last Friday, Huawei Group founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei urged all employees to work hard, saying the company would otherwise “fall apart”.

“Thirty-something strong men, don’t work hard, just want to count money in bed, is that possible?,” Ren said in the memo seen by Reuters. “Huawei will not pay for those that don’t work hard.”

The remarks have unnerved some of Huawei’s 170,000-strong workforce, 45% of which are in research and development, a division said by Huawei staff in online communities to be most insecure.

“Everybody is nervous,” said a 36-year old engineer in Huawei’s consumer business unit who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“We are now all thinking more of the next steps, realizing permanent employment with the company is no longer a given.”

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45% in R&D? That implies either that the networking business is super-profitable, or that the company is badly unbalanced.
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Mozilla acquires Pocket to gain a foothold on mobile devices • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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Mozilla has acquired Pocket, a kind of DVR for the internet, for an undisclosed sum. The nine-year-old company, which makes tools for saving articles and videos to view them later, is Mozilla’s first acquisition. It represents a homecoming of sorts for Pocket, which began life as a Firefox extension before eventually expanding its team and building a suite of apps for every major platform. Pocket has been Firefox’s default read-it-later service since 2015.

Mozilla said Pocket, which it will operate as an independent subsidiary, would help bring the company to mobile devices, where it has historically struggled to attract users. Best known for its Firefox web browser, Mozilla has faltered in the mobile era, spending years on its failed Firefox phone project and waiting until 2016 to release Firefox on iOS globally. Meanwhile, the slow decline of the desktop web has made Mozilla’s broader future uncertain.

Pocket comes to the table with 10 million monthly active users and a set of existing and potential businesses new to Mozilla, including advertising, a premium subscription service, and analytics for publishers. And unlike Mozilla’s existing mobile products, people seem to enjoy using it. “We love the way that they have the user-first mentality, very similar to the way we drive our products,” said Denelle Dixon, Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer. “It hasn’t just been about how much revenue they can glean from their product.”

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Which is a good thing, because it doesn’t glean much revenue, and it’s unclear how it can. Mozilla has a problem: if the Yahoo search deal ends, it’s going to struggle to find revenues comparable with the good days when Google paid plenty to be its default search engine.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: a previous Start Up referred to Paul Nuttall of UKIP as “the polar explorer and Martian astronaut”. This should have read “Martian explorer and polar astronaut.” We regret the error.

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