Start Up: strawberry green, Twitter cracks down on eggs, the smartphone squeeze, smarter Word?, and more

“Do those count as sedans?” Let machine learning decide whether it’s a prosperous town. Photo by swainboat on Flickr.

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A selection of 14 links for you. It’s that “started, can’t stop” thing. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This picture has no red pixels — so why do the strawberries still look red? • Motherboard

Kaleigh Rogers:


This weekend marked the two-year anniversary of The Dress: the unfathomably viral photo of a dress that divided the internet for more than a week in 2015 over whether it was blue and black, or white and gold. So it’s appropriate that, on this auspicious date, an equally maddening photo recently started making the rounds online:

The photo was created by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a Professor of Psychology at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, who specializes in creating optical illusions (his twitter feed will blow your mind). As you can see in the tweet above, this photo has no red pixels in it, even though the strawberries pictured clearly appear red. Though plenty of twitter users tried to argue this fact, another person demonstrated that the pixels we’re seeing as red are really grey (and a little green).


Rogers said that she felt compelled to write the story after seeing the picture. A key part of it is that we recognise the objects as strawberries; if they were something that we’d never seen before, we wouldn’t know what colour they were meant to be.
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US appeals court tosses patent verdict against Apple • Reuters

Jan Wolfe:


A federal appeals court has thrown out a jury verdict that had originally required Apple to pay $533m to Smartflash LLC, a technology developer and licenser that claimed Apple’s iTunes software infringed its data storage patents.

The trial judge vacated the large damages award a few months after a Texas federal jury imposed it in February 2015, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said on Wednesday the judge should have ruled Smartflash’s patents invalid and set aside the verdict entirely.

A unanimous three-judge appeals panel said Smartflash’s patents were too “abstract” and did not go far enough in describing an actual invention to warrant protection.

The decision likely ends a case that had attracted wide attention when the verdict was rendered but had gone against the plaintiff ever since.


Judges ruled the patents invalid. That’s a bust for Smartflash.
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Twitter ramps up abuse controls as it lets users silence anonymous ‘eggs’ • Daily Telegraph

Sam Dean:


Twitter users will now be able to automatically bar anonymous trolls from their timelines as the social media giant steps up its fight on abuse.

Twitter has introduced new filtering options that allow users to mute accounts without profile pictures, unverified email addresses and phone numbers.

Accounts that do not have profile pictures – also known as ‘Twitter eggs’ – have long been associated with abusive behaviour on the site, which has been criticised for not doing more to clamp down on the problem.

The platform also said that it is working on identifying abusive accounts even in cases where they have not been reported. It can then limit the accounts for a certain amount of time so that only their followers can see their tweets.


Improvement, and only a couple of years overdue.
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Apple deleted server supplier after finding infected firmware in servers [Updated] • Ars Technica

Sean Gallagher, first repeating and then updating a story from The Information about Apple dumping SuperMicro Systems over dodgy firmware:


Apple has used a variety of other companies’ server hardware—since the company got out of the server business itself and never used its own in datacenters—including servers from HP and storage from NetApp. A few years ago, Apple added Supermicro as a supplier for some of its development and data center computing infrastructure.

But Apple has been squeezing the cost of its data center supply chain and moving toward more custom hardware much like the other cloud giants. In August of 2016, Digitimes reported Apple was increasing its orders for full-rack systems from the integrator ZT Systems and adding the China-based Inspur as a server supplier.

Leng told The Information that Apple was the only company to report the firmware issue, and he said the servers are used by thousands of customers. He asserted that when his company asked Apple’s engineers to provide information about the firmware, they gave an incorrect version number—and then refused to give further information.

Update: A source familiar with the case at Apple told Ars that the compromised firmware affected servers in Apple’s design lab, and not active Siri servers. The firmware, according to the source, was downloaded directly from Supermicro’s support site—and that firmware is still hosted there.


Wonder how the infection was spotted. Did it phone home?
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YouTube, the world’s biggest video site, wants to sell you TV for $35 a month • Recode

Dan Frommer:


YouTube used to be the place you could watch almost anything you wanted, for free. Now YouTube wants to be the place that sells you TV.

Google’s video site is taking the wraps off YouTube TV, its new $35-a-month TV service that will package a bundle of channels from the broadcast networks and some cable networks.

YouTube says the service, which will sit in a new, standalone app, will launch later this spring. It’s separate from YouTube Red, the ad-free subscription service the company launched last year, which hasn’t had much success.

YouTube TV is supposed to be “mobile first” — that is, YouTube expects that subscribers will spend most of their time watching on phones, though they’ll also be able to watch on devices like laptops and traditional TVs, via Google’s Chromecast devices.

Like other new digital TV services, YouTube TV won’t offer every network that cable TV services provide; instead it will feature a “skinny bundle,” composed of the four broadcast networks — Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC — along with some of the cable channels related to the broadcasters. Which means you’ll also get networks like Fox News, ESPN and Bravo; YouTube execs say the base package will include about three dozen channels.


Neither Google nor Facebook is a media company, of course. Google is touting “cloud DVR” (replayable programs? How cute) and an AI-powered recommendation system. TiVo has offered the latter since 2000.

Plenty of analysis is saying this is a terribly milquetoast offering: none of the sports channels people really do want, but including tons of other things they don’t want. YouTube wants to be the destination for everything video, but it’s hard to see this being the breakthrough.
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UK Digital Strategy: 7. Data – unlocking the power of data in the UK economy • GOV.UK

This is now official UK government policy:


The true potential of data can only be harnessed if it is open for use by others. The UK leads the world in open data, and the government is committed to building on this and being open by default. All official statistics are now published under the open government licence and we have made over 40,000 government datasets available through our web-portal.

We also lead the world in the quality of our openly available geospatial data and we will continue to support innovators and businesses to use this data. This includes through the Ordnance Survey’s GeoVation programme which runs competitions to help entrepreneurs use geospatial data and technology to develop their ideas, and provides a Hub where new start-ups can access desk-space, mentoring, and legal and professional support.

But government still holds data that could be opened up for researchers, campaigners, established companies and entrepreneurs to use. It is our ambition to ensure data is shared wherever appropriate. This will help businesses and government to innovate, generate maximum economic value and help create new digital products and services that enhance citizens’ lives.


11 years ago, Michael Cross and I started the Free Our Data campaign in the Guardian’s Technology section:


Britain’s public sector information is held by some 400 government departments, agencies and local authorities. Assets range from wills dating back to 1858, house values recorded in the Land Registry, maps and the risk of flooding to individual homes. Much is of great commercial interest, especially when it can be presented on innovative websites such as These sets of data are the modern crown jewels – but instead of treating them as a resource to boost national wealth, the government locks them up, restricting access to those who pay.


What was once controversial is now government policy.
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Are China’s smartphone OEMs falling behind Apple on features upgrades? •

Shuli Ren:


according to Ken Hui at Huatai Securities, a mainland Chinese brokerage, smartphone manufacturers in China are struggling to sell phones that cost more than 3,000 yuan ($440), and they have started to remove expensive features such as dual cameras.

Hui’s bearish outlook does not bode well for Sunny Optical, which has rallied over 50% this year.

And it is not just dual cameras –  Chinese OEMs are foregoing 3D glass, waterproofing, and haptic technology too as they preserve margins. While Hui has a Sell rating on Sunny Optical, he has a Hold position on haptics supplier AAC Technologies, which has gained 19.5% this year. Haptics, or feedback technology, on smartphones enables the user to feel a tactile sensation when interacting with an application.


Notable that after Huawei’s headline-grabbing 3D Touch-style phone launched ahead of Apple’s 6S in 2014, there hasn’t been a sign of haptic Android phones. Too expensive, too little benefit. (Apple, meanwhile, has broader plans for haptics.)

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Soaring prices of key components are starting to squeeze the margins of smartphone makers • TrendForce


The markets for key components used in smartphones have experienced rising prices since the second half of 2016 because of tightening supply. TrendForce’s latest analyses indicate that prices of mobile DRAM, mobile NAND Flash products and AMOLED panels will continue to climb through 2017. As smartphone brands will be raising hardware specifications of their products, they are also revealing their intentions to build up their inventories in advance. High prices of AMOLED panels and memory components during this entire year will constrain smartphone makers’ ability to attain greater profits…

…Samsung Display (SDC) this year will divide most its AMOLED panel capacity between its group company Samsung and Apple. The panel maker has very limited ability to satisfy the rising demand from other brands. Therefore, TrendForce believes that prices of AMOLED panels will most likely stay on an uptrend in the second half of 2017 because of persisting undersupply. On the other hand, prices of LTPS LCD panels for smartphones will begin to drop gradually starting in the second quarter on account of the overall production capacity expansion.


The squeeze is beginning.

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Watch Tesla Autopilot 2.0 drive like a drunk old man • Jalopnik

Ryan Felton:


The video from Tesla owner “Scott S.” shows his Model S driving with Autosteer and Traffic-aware cruise control (TACC) engaged while driving. It doesn’t go well. At times, the car veers toward curbs and merges across the double yellow line. Scott wrote in the comment section that he has driven that particular road at least 30 times, making the Autopilot failure seem even more strange.

A commenter hypothesized that the Model S sensors hadn’t been calibrated properly, but Scott replied that it’s likely not the hardware, rather a software issue “because I have two AP2.0 Teslas.”

The slow rollout of Autopilot 2.0 included a caveat from Tesla founder Elon Musk to exercise some caution when driving on the road. Musk also said some HW2 cars may require being serviced.


Watching this, one’s thought tends to be: it looks like a big hassle. What’s so great about letting the car drive if you have to be constantly alert to the possibility that it’s going to veer off and you’ll have to wrestle with the steering wheel? And given how often updates in software involve bugs, who’d want to rush into installing x.0 of any self-driving software?
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Pre-roll ads motivate 1 in 3 blockers to stop ads • GlobalWebIndex

Katie Young:


To provide a better advertising experience for its users, Google announced last week that by 2018 it will stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads on YouTube and will instead focus on shorter formats.

Such an approach makes absolute sense for YouTube and shows a proactive response to users’ ad preferences. If we take a look at the top reasons why Ad-Blocker Users deploy these tools, they’re most likely to be doing so out of frustration – believing that ads are annoying, take up too much screen space or simply get in the way. Above all, though, particularly relevant here is that a third say they don’t like seeing video ads before watching video content.


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Using Deep Learning and Google Street View to estimate the demographic makeup of the US • Arxiv

Timnit Gebru, Jonathan Krause, Yilun Wang, Duyun Chen, Jia Deng, Erez Lieberman Aiden, and Li Fei-Fei:


The United States spends more than $1bn each year on the American Community Survey (ACS), a labor-intensive door-to-door study that measures statistics relating to race, gender, education, occupation, unemployment, and other demographic factors. Although a comprehensive source of data, the lag between demographic changes and their appearance in the ACS can exceed half a decade.

As digital imagery becomes ubiquitous and machine vision techniques improve, automated data analysis may provide a cheaper and faster alternative. Here, we present a method that determines socioeconomic trends from 50 million images of street scenes, gathered in 200 American cities by Google Street View cars. Using deep learning-based computer vision techniques, we determined the make, model, and year of all motor vehicles encountered in particular neighborhoods. Data from this census of motor vehicles, which enumerated 22M automobiles in total (8% of all automobiles in the US), was used to accurately estimate income, race, education, and voting patterns, with single-precinct resolution.


Though of course Google still has to do the Street View work, which quite possibly costs around $1bn; how often is GSV updated?

But there are some amazing correlations in there:


The resulting associations are surprisingly simple and powerful. For instance, if the number of sedans encountered during a 15-minute drive through a city is higher than the number of pickup trucks, the city is likely to vote for a Democrat during the next Presidential election (88% chance); otherwise, it is likely to vote Republican (82%).


If they do this as a time series (with Google’s help?) this could become a very valuable dataset.
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Xiaomi launches its own chip, with an assist from Beijing • WSJ

Eva Dou:


Chinese government funding helped Xiaomi Corp. produce its first smartphone processor, the company’s chairman said as he unveiled the chip at a packed launch event in the China National Convention Center here Tuesday.

The support is the latest sign of China’s push to develop its semiconductor industry, which has included attempts to buy overseas chip companies for their technology. Xiaomi is the second Chinese smartphone maker, after Huawei Technologies Co., able to develop its own processors.

Xiaomi Chairman Lei Jun disclosed the government funding as he described development of the new Pinecone Surge S1 chip, which will power the company’s new budget smartphone, the Mi 5C. The phone goes on sale in China Friday, with a starting price of 1,499 yuan ($218).

The Beijing-based smartphone company typically thanks private-sector partners during its product launches. But on Tuesday, it flashed a slide that read: “Thanks for the government’s support.”


The question is quite what difference this can make for Xiaomi. Given that it runs its own OS inside China, it’s possible it might yield some benefit – but it’s a long road. It took Apple years, and a huge integrated system, to reap the value of buying PA Semi.
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In video, Uber CEO argues with driver over falling fares • Bloomberg

Eric Newcomer:


the gig has gotten harder for longtime drivers. In 2012, Uber Black cost riders $4.90 per mile or $1.25 per minute in San Francisco, according to an old version of Uber’s website. Today, Uber charges $3.75 per mile and $0.65 per minute. Black car drivers get paid less and their business faces far more competition from other Uber services.

Kalanick has a reputation for being ferociously competitive and hard-charging. He’s the guy who has bragged about having earned the second-highest rank on Nintendo’s Wii tennis game. He’s still dogged by the fact that he once referred to Uber as “Boob-er” because it improved his dating prospects. Current and former employees say he can be empathetic when the mood strikes—or tyrannical when it doesn’t. Kalanick loves fighting over a good idea, which sometimes means admitting that his isn’t the best one. “Toe-stepping” is one of Uber’s cultural values.

Kalanick is trying to be a better listener.


But as the cab video shows, he’s not that great at it. Uber’s toxic culture is starting to seep out and create problems in its interactions with the world.

Also notable: one gets videoed everywhere these days. (A car on a public road is a public space in American law, apparently.)
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Machine learning in Microsoft Word’s new editor gave me the frights • Venturebeat

John Brandon:


I’ve been writing professionally since 2001 (around 10,000 published articles now), but I’m still learning, I guess. The new Editor announced today (and available [in the US – ed] immediately if you select the Fast Insider option within Word under Settings) is like hiring a grammar nanny. The Editor scans all of your prose, alerting you to passive voice and jargon. It can identify words that “express uncertainty” (the suckers, it flagged dozens of instances). For example, in a document that’s 50,000 words (long story on that one, but you should buy it next year), I kept using words like “basically” and “maybe” over and over again. I zapped them because, now that I look back at the text, they add clutter.

How does Word know when to flag words? That’s where the AI comes into play. It’s interesting, because a simple AI would scan for all instances of the word “really” and flag them. Really? If it was that dense, it would have flagged the word in that last question, but it knows enough about language, context, and even one-word questions to know not to flag them.

Another interesting discovery: I’m a champion of active voice. I was educated about the problem long ago. (Oh crap, there it is again.) Word kept reminding me about it, over and over again, until I had some of the passivity beat out of me. Fixing these problems takes time, editing them for better phrasing, but the Editor shows up in a pane to the right when you select the “See More” option when you right-click. It often makes suggestions that save time.


Wonder how it copes with the usual impenetrable jargon that MS Word is asked to produce, such as air conditioning regulations. Will it rebel and demand more interesting stuff?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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