Start Up: iPhones will keep Lightning, AI for tennis linecalls, Counter-Strike’s gambling market, and more


What happened at Amazon? Imagine these are Amazon S3 servers. Now, knock one over… Photo by Tim Cummins on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region • Amazon

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We’d like to give you some additional information about the service disruption that occurred in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region on the morning of February 28th. The Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) team was debugging an issue causing the S3 billing system to progress more slowly than expected. At 9:37AM PST, an authorized S3 team member using an established playbook executed a command which was intended to remove a small number of servers for one of the S3 subsystems that is used by the S3 billing process.

Unfortunately, one of the inputs to the command was entered incorrectly and a larger set of servers was removed than intended. The servers that were inadvertently removed supported two other S3 subsystems.  One of these subsystems, the index subsystem, manages the metadata and location information of all S3 objects in the region. This subsystem is necessary to serve all GET, LIST, PUT, and DELETE requests. The second subsystem, the placement subsystem, manages allocation of new storage and requires the index subsystem to be functioning properly to correctly operate.

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Can you spell “domino effect”? There’s also this deathless admission:

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From the beginning of this event until 11:37AM PST, we were unable to update the individual services’ status on the AWS Service Health Dashboard (SHD) because of a dependency the SHD administration console has on Amazon S3.

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Might want to think about that one. Host it on Azure? Google Cloud?
link to this extract


Ming-Chi Kuo Says all 2017 iPhones will have Lightning connectors with USB-C fast charging • Mac Rumors

Joe Rossignol:

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All three iPhones rumored to be launched in 2017 will retain Lightning connectors with the addition of USB-C Power Delivery for faster charging, including an all-new OLED model with a larger L-shaped battery and updated 4.7in and 5.5in models, according to KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

An excerpt from his latest research note obtained by MacRumors:

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New 2H17 models may all support fast charging. We believe all three new iPhones launching in 2H17 will support fast charging by the adoption of Type-C Power Delivery technology (while still retaining the Lightning port). A key technical challenge lies with ensuring product safety and stable data transmission during a fast charge. In order to achieve that goal, we think Apple will adopt TI’s power management and Cypress’s Power Delivery chip solutions for the new iPhone models. We note the OLED version may have a faster charging speed thanks to a 2-cell L shaped battery pack design.

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Kuo expects Apple to retain the Lightning port given it has a slightly slimmer design compared to a USB-C port, to sustain MFi Program licensing income from Lightning accessories, and because he believes USB-C’s high-speed data transmission is “still a niche application” for iPhone.

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The internet was briefly convulsed yesterday when rumours suggested the next iPhone would use a USB-C port, leading to much headscratching and pre-post-justification for why Apple obviously needed to do it in order to [insert nebulous reason here]. In reality, it always sounded much more likely that it was a supply chain rumour gone wrong.
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Apple declares second-gen Apple TV ‘obsolete,’ halts most hardware support • Apple Insider

Roger Fingas:

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Apple this week added the second-generation Apple TV to its list of “vintage” and “obsolete” products, rendering it ineligible for repairs in most parts of the world.

The only places where service and parts may still be available are in Turkey and California, where the “vintage” label is in effect, according to an Apple support document. Vintage devices are defined as being made over 5 but less than 7 years ago, and the category typically excludes products from support except where required by law.

In the rest of the world the set-top has been declared “obsolete,” which normally refers to products discontinued over seven years ago.

The second-gen Apple TV is actually a more recent device however, having launched in Sept. 2010 with production ending only in 2012, when the third-gen model went on sale.

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I guess the 4K model is on the way. The five-year lifespan would be OK, but it has still been selling them until very recently.
link to this extract


This $200 AI will end tennis club screaming matches • Bloomberg

Ashlee Vance:

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[Grégoire] Gentil, 44, now lives in Palo Alto and built the In/Out in his living room lab. The device monitors both sides of a tennis court using a pair of cameras similar to those found in smartphones. After attaching the In/Out to the net with a plastic strap, a player pushes a button on its screen, and it scans the court to find the lines using open-source artificial intelligence software. AI also helps the device track the ball’s flight, pace, and spin. “This would not have been possible five years ago,” Gentil says.

In a test at Stanford, Gentil and I played for an hour, and the In/Out beeped whenever one of his shots sailed long or wide. (I don’t remember missing any.) On close calls, we rushed over to watch a video replay on the In/Out screen. At hour’s end, Gentil whipped out a tablet and connected to the In/Out app, which showed where all our shots had landed and provided some other stats.

Although equipment like the In/Out has been around for years, Gentil’s is the only one that costs about as little as a decent racket. Top tournaments, including the Grand Slams, use Hawk-Eye, a Sony Corp.-owned system of superaccurate cameras that customers say costs $60,000 or more to set up on each court. Given the price, it’s typically reserved for show courts. Sony didn’t respond to requests for comment.

PlaySight Interactive Ltd., a startup in Israel, makes a six-camera system that’s less accurate than Hawk-Eye but costs a mere $10,000 per court, plus a monthly fee to collect data that can be reviewed online or in an app. PlaySight’s setup also includes a large screen that lets players see line calls and ball speed without interrupting the game. The company has sold its gear mostly to tennis clubs and universities.

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Fun tale; though the device is too quiet at present. Nobody would hear such a quiet thing on a noisy court. Also, it’s not clear if it knows about service boxes – what happens with serves, which are hotly disputed?
link to this extract


How Counter-Strike turned a teenager into a compulsive gambler • ESPN

Shaun Assel:

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The first-person-shooter game pits terrorists against counterterrorists and was played by an average of 342,000 people at once in 2016. Its biggest tournaments, such as the ELeague Major scheduled for Jan. 22-29 in Atlanta, can have million-dollar prize pools and as many as 27 million streaming viewers. An estimated 26m copies of the $15 game have been downloaded since its debut four years ago, helping make its manufacturer, Valve, the world’s leading distributor of PC titles.

While other titles such as Call of Duty offer similar gameplay, one distinctive feature has helped fuel Counter-Strike’s growth: collectible items in the game called “skins.” Although they don’t improve anyone’s chances of winning, the skins cover weapons in distinctive patterns that make players more identifiable when they stream on services like Twitch. Users can buy, sell and trade the skins, and those used by pros become hotly demanded. Some can fetch thousands of dollars in online marketplaces.

Valve controls the skins market. Every few months, it releases an update to Counter-Strike with new designs. It decides how many of each skin get produced and pockets a 15% fee every time one gets bought or sold on its official marketplace, called Steam. Valve even offers stock tickers that monitor the skins’ constantly shifting values.

But Valve also leaves a door open into the programming of its virtual world, one that allows skins to move out of Steam and into a murky constellation of gambling websites, where they’re used as currency. Some $5bn was wagered in skins in 2016, according to research by the firms Eilers & Krejcik Gaming and Narus Advisors. While about 40% of them are bet on esports matches and tournaments, says Chris Grove, who authored a study for the companies, roughly $3bn worth flows to a darker corner of the internet – one populated by fly-by-night websites that accept skins for casino-style gaming. Here, the games are simple, the action is fast and new sites open as soon as others close. Plenty of adults visit these sites, but with virtually no age restrictions, kids are also able to gamble their skins — often bought with a parent’s credit card – on slots, dice, coin flips or roulette spins. At least one site even has pro sports betting.

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Remarkable reporting.
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News use across social media platforms 2016 • Pew Research Center

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A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In 2012, based on a slightly different question, 49% of U.S. adults reported seeing news on social media.1

But which social media sites have the largest portion of users getting news there? How many get news on multiple social media sites? And to what degree are these news consumers seeking online news out versus happening upon it while doing other things?

As part of an ongoing examination of social media and news, Pew Research Center analyzed the scope and characteristics of social media news consumers across nine social networking sites. This study is based on a survey conducted Jan. 12-Feb. 8, 2016, with 4,654 members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel.

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If I’m reading this correctly, it’s saying that Reddit and Facebook users particularly live inside news bubbles created by the site. Reddit isn’t algorithmic (though people self-select into silos); Facebook is, and that’s a concern: people won’t realise that their news tastes are being tailored to them.

link to this extract


Data from connected CloudPets teddy bears leaked and ransomed, exposing kids’ voice messages • Troy Hunt

The security researcher explains:

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firstly, put yourself in the shoes of the average parent, that is one who’s technically literate enough to know the wifi password but not savvy enough to understand how the “magic” of daddy talking to the kids through the bear (and vice versa) actually works. They don’t necessarily realise that every one of those recordings – those intimate, heartfelt, extremely personal recordings – between a parent and their child is stored as an audio file on the web. They certainly wouldn’t realise that in CloudPets’ case, that data was stored in a MongoDB that was in a publicly facing network segment without any authentication required and had been indexed by Shodan (a popular search engine for finding connected things).

Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there. People found the exposed database online. Many people and the worrying thing is, it’s highly unlikely anyone knows quite how many. The first I knew of it was when earlier last week, someone sent me data from the table holding the user accounts, about 583k records in total (this subsequently turned out to be a subset of the total number in the CloudPets service). I started going through my usual verification process to ensure it was legitimate and by pure coincidence, I was in the US running a private security workshop at the time and one of the guys in my class had a CloudPets account. Sure enough, his email address was in the breach and it was time-stamped Christmas day, the day his daughter had been given the toy. His record looked somewhat like these, the first few in the data I was given:

The password was stored as a bcrypt hash and to verify it was legitimate, he gave me his original password (I asked him to change it on CloudPets first) and I successfully validated that the hash against his record was the correct one (I’d previously validated the Dropbox data breach by doing the same thing with my wife’s account). The data was real.

CloudPets left their database exposed publicly to the web without so much as a password to protect it.

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link to this extract


Flotilla of tiny satellites will photograph the entire Earth every day • AAAS

Mark Strauss:

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On 14 February, earth scientists and ecologists received a Valentine’s Day gift from the San Francisco, California-based company Planet, which launched 88 shoebox-sized satellites on a single Indian rocket. They joined dozens already in orbit, bringing the constellation of “Doves,” as these tiny imaging satellites are known, to 144. Six months from now, once the Doves have settled into their prescribed orbits, the company says it will have reached its primary goal: being able to image every point on Earth’s landmass at intervals of 24 hours or less, at resolutions as high as 3.7 meters—good enough to single out large trees. It’s not the resolution that’s so impressive, though. It’s getting a whole Earth selfie every day.

The news has already sparked excitement in the business world, which is willing to pay a premium for daily updates of telltale industrial and agricultural data like shipping in the South China Sea and corn yields in Mexico. But scientists are realizing that they, too, can take advantage of the daily data—timescales that sparser observations from other satellites and aircraft could not provide.

“This is a game changer,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wants to use Planet imagery to map coral bleaching events as they unfold. At present, coral researchers often rely on infrequent, costly reconnaissance airplane flights. “The previous state of the science was, for me, like taking a family photo album and shaking out all the photos on the floor and then being asked to haphazardly pick up three images and tell the story of the family.”…

…Matt Finer, a researcher at the Amazon Conservation Association in Washington, D.C., gets weekly deforestation alerts based on Landsat images, but says they are too course to determine whether the damage is natural or human-caused. He now turns to Planet data to decide whether an event is concerning. He recalls one incident when his group spotted 11 hectares of forest loss in Peru, accompanied by extensive dredging—signs of an illegal gold mining operation. “The Peruvian government was on the ground within 24 to 48 hours, kicking the miners out,” he says. In previous years, Finer says, hundreds of hectares might be lost before anyone acted.

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The benefits this can provide to scientists are immense – once people get used to the amount of data they’re going to have to learn to process.
link to this extract


This site is “taking the edge off rant mode” by making readers pass a quiz before commenting • Nieman Journalism Lab

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Two weeks ago, NRKbeta, the tech vertical of the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, published an explainer about a proposed new digital surveillance law in the country.

Digital security is a controversial topic, and the conversation around security issues can become heated. But the conversation in the comments of the article was respectful and productive: Commenters shared links to books and other research, asked clarifying questions, and offered constructive feedback.

The team at NRKbeta attributes the civil tenor of its comments to a feature it introduced last month. On some stories, potential commenters are now required to answer three basic multiple-choice questions about the article before they’re allowed to post a comment. (For instance, in the digital surveillance story: “What does DGF stand for?”)

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Wow. This could revolutionise commenting. Well, there’s always hope, right?
link to this extract


Samsung’s bill to take on Apple’s Siri topped $200 million • Axios

Ina Fried:

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Samsung spent 238.9bn Korean Won ($209m) for last year’s acquisition of Viv Labs, a 30-person voice AI startup from the creators of Apple’s Siri. The figure was confirmed in a regulatory filing this week.

Viv’s technology, or at least a version of it, is expected to show up in the Galaxy S8, due to be unveiled in New York next month.

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The regulatory filing is quite a slog. Apple paid roughly the same to buy Siri, but that was back in 2010 or so. A lot more has been put into it since then. And Samsung is plunging into a competitive market – Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa. It really risks having egg on its face.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: we previously referred to Paul Nuttall of UKIP as a Martian explorer and polar astronaut. This should have said that he likes Mars bars and Polo mints. We regret the error.

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