Start Up: productivity at Apple and Google, Samsung recycles Note 7, Medium’s uphill battle, and more


How you record a dice throw could reveal things about corruption in the country you grew up in. Photo by misterbisson on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

National corruption breeds personal dishonesty • Scientific American

Simon Makin:

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The researchers developed a measure of corruption by combining three widely used metrics that capture levels of political fraud, tax evasion and corruption in a given country. “We wanted to get a really broad index, including many different aspects of rule violations,” Schulz says. They then conducted an experiment involving 2,568 participants from 23 nations. Participants were asked to roll a die twice and report the outcome of only the first roll. They received a sum of money proportional to the number reported but got nothing for rolling a six. Nobody else saw the die, so participants were free to lie about the outcome.

If everyone were completely honest about their die rolls, the average claim would be 2.5, whereas if everyone were maximally dishonest, all claims would be 5. Participants from nations with a high prevalence of rule violations (PRV)—including Georgia, Tanzania, Guatemala and Kenya—tended to claim more than those from low-PRV countries—such as Austria, the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany—and average claims correlated with PRV values. In other words, the more corrupt the country, the more its citizens inflated the number they reported. These values were calculated using data from 2003, and the experiments were conducted between 2011 and 2014 using participants whose average age was 21—too young to have personally influenced PRV ratings but old enough to have been influenced by social norms, implying that national corruption levels influenced participants’ honesty, not vice versa.

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The paper is here (if you have a Nature subscription).
link to this extract


Why employees at Apple and Google are more productive • Fast Company

Stephanie Vozza:

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Companies like Apple, Netflix, Google, and Dell are 40% more productive than the average company, according to research from the leadership consulting firm Bain & Company. You might think that it’s because these companies attract top-tier employees–high performers who are naturally gifted at productivity–but that’s not the case, says Bain & Company partner Michael Mankins.

“Our research found that these companies have 16% star players, while other companies have 15%,” he says. “They start with about the same mix of star players, but they are able to produce dramatically more output.”

It’s what they do with these high performers. Executives from large companies across 12 industry sectors worldwide said three components of human capital impact productivity more than anything else: time, talent, and energy. And the top quartile organized its business processes in a way that they’re 40% more productive than the rest and consequently have profit margins that are 30%-50% higher than industry averages.

“They get more done by 10 a.m. Thursday morning than the others do in a week, but they don’t stop working,” says Mankins. “This difference compounds every year; over a decade, they can produce 30 times more than the rest, with the same number of employees.”

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Mankins has written a book on this. One of his cases in point: iOS 1.0 v Vista. Though in the article it’s written as “iOS 10” and described as “mission critical”. Also critical: careful reading.
link to this extract


Samsung confirms the Note 7 is coming back as a refurbished device • The Verge

Natt Garun:

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Ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S8 launch, the company has released a statement regarding its plans to recycle Note 7 devices. The process comes in three parts: save salvageable components such as camera modules and semiconductors, extract metal parts with the help from “eco-friendly” third-party companies, and sell refurbished devices “where applicable.”

The announcement appears to walk back on what Samsung initially pledged last fall, when it said it would dispose of the Note 7 and had no plans to repair or refurbish them. Instead, Samsung has confirmed it will work with local authorities and carriers to sell it as a refurbished device, rumored to come with a smaller battery to prevent it from overheating and catching fire. The company said available markets are to be determined as they work with local regulators to approve of the sale.

“The objective of introducing refurbished devices is solely to reduce and minimize any environmental impact,” Samsung told The Verge in a statement.

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“This millstone? Yeah, we’ve painted it, and think it looks nice around our neck, actually.”
link to this extract


Samsung Galaxy S8: The antidote for phone fatigue? • CNET

Roger Cheng:

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Samsung will hold its Galaxy S8 launch event in New York at Lincoln Center on Wednesday starting at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT), and CNET will bring you all the details and full coverage as it happens.

But the stakes aren’t just isolated to one company — phones in general need a jump start, a spark of innovation to get us excited again. Samsung is banking the Galaxy S8 is just that catalyst.

Because let’s face it, there’s been a general malaise creeping into the phone world as the innovative jumps between versions of phones get smaller and smaller. Sure, phones boast faster processors, better cameras and brighter displays — but that’s all kind of expected now, right?

It’s telling that amid all of the new phones released at the Mobile World Congress trade show last month, it was the reboot of a 17-year-old feature phone — the Nokia 3310 — that captured everyone’s attention. Keep in mind this was a show where household names like LG and Sony rolled out their big phones and BlackBerry mounted yet another comeback attempt with the KeyOne (courtesy of Chinese phone maker TCL).

But did anyone care? Nope.

I’ll readily admit that I suffer from an extreme form of phone fatigue. It’s hard not to when you deal with the next greatest smartphone seemingly every month. It can’t just be me, right?

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Smartphone evolution has slowed so much it has pretty much stopped. There isn’t anything dramatic you can do now to the form factor or, largely, function. So we’re now into the commoditisation era, when retro stuff feels fun because it’s properly different.
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Dishwasher has directory traversal bug • The Register

Richard Chirgwin:

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Don’t say you weren’t warned: Miele went full Internet-of-Things with a dishwasher, gave it a web server and now finds itself on the wrong end of a bug report and it’s accused of ignoring the warning.

The utterly predictable bug report at Full Disclosure details CVE-2017-7240, “Miele Professional PG 8528 – Web Server Directory Traversal”.

“The corresponding embedded Web server ‘PST10 WebServer’ typically listens to port 80 and is prone to a directory traversal attack, therefore an unauthenticated attacker may be able to exploit this issue to access sensitive information to aide in subsequent attacks.”

Proving it for yourself is simple: GET /../../../../../../../../../../../../etc/shadow HTTP/1.1 to whatever IP the dishwasher has on the LAN.

Directory traversal attacks let miscreants access directories other than those needed by a web server. And once they’re in those directories, it’s party time because they can insert their own code and tell the web server to execute it.

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If you squint hard, you can see why you might want this – to turn on your dishwasher at some convenient time of day when you’re not there. (Solar panels work during the day…) However, internet security is harder than making dishwashers.
link to this extract


Beware Google ads for ‘abortion consultations’ • Bloomberg

Alice Hines:

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Imagine you’re pregnant, and you don’t want to be. You type “abortion pittsburgh” into Google, and the first result is the Pittsburgh Women’s Clinic, offering “free abortion consultations.” “Only you know what’s best for you,” the Google ad reads. “Same-day appointments available. Call now!” You click and come face-to-face with a photo of a smiling woman with a stethoscope. “Looking for an abortion?” she asks in 65-point font. But you won’t get one from her or from the Pittsburgh Women’s Clinic. No clinic with that precise name exists.

The site is a landing page for a network of 41 pregnancy centers seeking to deter women from getting abortions. These centers, located in what they say are America’s “most abortion-dense cities,” are affiliated with or owned by Human Coalition—formerly Online for Life, sometimes going by the name Media Revolution Ministries—a Texas-based nonprofit that reaches “abortion-determined women” via ad campaigns shaped by search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

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Totally predictable, but the question is whether this is false advertising. Some US cities are passing ordinances against such dubious schemes.
link to this extract


Why you won’t see Unilever announcing it is pulling its ads from YouTube • Business Insider

Lara O’Reilly:

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[Unilever marketing chief Keith] Weed says the current industry-standard for a view — 50% of the pixels of an ad seen for 1 second or more — doesn’t go far enough. He says a view should be 100% of the pixels seen. On video, he says half of the ad must have been watched to count as a view — versus the industry-standard of 50% of the pixels for 2 continuous seconds.

“I was saying [back during discussions with Google in 2015] I’m not taking a stance against YouTube or any other platform, I’m taking a stance about what I’m willing to pay for. This is my criteria, if you don’t match that criteria, at the end of the day, it’s Unilever dollars. If you don’t match that criteria, that’s fair enough. But our dollars will follow where that criteria exists,” Weed said.

Marc Pritchard, the chief marketing officer at consumer goods giant P&G, delivered two landmark speeches earlier this year in which he gave its agencies and suppliers a year’s notice to get audited and open themselves up to accredited third-party verification services. Media agency The&Partnership’s founder Johnny Hornby said advertisers and agencies should set a “Cannes deadline” — referring to the Cannes Lions advertising industry event that takes place in June — for Google and Facebook to sort out issues such as ad fraud and ad misplacement, or else the industry should cut its spend on those platforms

Weed said the progress digital platforms have made on those types of areas over the past couple of years has been “fantastic,” although they are still not where they should be. But he doesn’t plan to put an public deadline on his demands, like his biggest competitor has. Instead, Unilever is giving individual companies separate, private deadlines.

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You’ve “seen” a video ad if half its pixels come into view for 2 seconds? Then again, TV advertising can’t really guarantee any viewing for any length of time.
link to this extract


The high-speed trading behind your Amazon purchase • WSJ

Christopher Mims noticed the price of marshmallows – of all things – had fluctuated wildly overnight on Amazon:

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Amazon’s retail business “is like this massive slowed-down stock exchange,” says Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder and chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. The usual market dynamics are at work: Sellers entering and leaving the market, temporary scarcity when someone runs out of stock or a manufacturer falls behind, and sellers testing consumers and each other with high and low prices.

The vendor of the marshmallows I wanted told me his high price was an attempt to bait competitors into raising their own asking prices for the item. This works because sellers of commodity items on Amazon are constantly monitoring and updating their prices, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times a day across thousands of items, says Mr. Kaziukėnas. Most use “rules-based” pricing systems, which simply seek to match competitors’ prices or beat them by some small fraction. If those systems get into bidding wars, items offered by only a few sellers can suffer sudden price collapses—“flash crashes.”

More sophisticated systems for pricing are offered by companies like New York City-based Feedvisor, which claims to use artificial intelligence to learn the market dynamics behind every item in a catalog. This system is “set it and forget it,” says Barry Lampert, one of Feedvisor’s customers and a top-500 seller on Amazon. The algorithm will often raise the price on items in a seller’s catalog, to see if other sellers will follow suit. The goal is to maximize sales while avoiding bidding wars that can be a race to the bottom.

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Fascinating piece; one of those things where if colossal computing power can be applied to something, it definitely will. And of course AI makes an appearance.
link to this extract


Burned once, publishers are wary of Medium’s new subscription offering • Poynter

Benjamin Mullin:

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This week, two months after denouncing web advertising, Williams unveiled Medium’s new plan to monetize content: A subscription service for $5 per month that gives contributors an improved reading experience, exclusive stories and a “personal, offline reading list.” The initiative includes a partner program whereby publishers can pitch stories to Medium that the company will fund on a per-story basis. For publishers who were relying on Medium’s revenue beta, the partner program represents a potential new revenue stream. But some interviewed for this article say it won’t be enough to pay their bills.

“Right now, we’re very concerned about the future of our site’s partnership with Medium,” said Neil Miller, the founder of pop culture site Film School Rejects. “What we were sold when we joined their platform is very different from what they’re offering as a way forward.”

“It’s almost as if Ev Williams wasn’t concerned that he was pulling out the rug from underneath publishers who had placed their trust in his vision for the future of journalism,” he said.

Medium, which sold publishers on being a home for quality journalism, is now putting the sites it recruited in jeopardy, Miller said.

“I sincerely hope it works out, but at this point there’s a lot of uncertainty in the viability of Medium as a platform for independent publishers,” he said. “We’d love to stay with them on this journey, but I worry that it will be impossible without significantly damaging our ability to operate our business.”

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This isn’t going to work for Medium, and now we await its next pivot, which will either be to artisanal pottery, or taking advertising.
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Signal and “sharing” of contacts • JWZ

Jamie Zawinski, a former founder of Mozilla and Netscape:

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When you install Signal, it asks for access to your contacts, and says very proudly, “we don’t upload your contacts, it all stays on your phone.”

And then it spams all of your contacts who have Signal installed, without asking your first.

And it shares your phone number with everyone in your contacts who has Signal installed.

And then when you scream ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME and delete your account and purge the app, guess what? All those people running Signal still have your phone number displayed for them right there in plain text. Deleting your account does not delete the information that the app shared without your permission.

So yeah. Real nice “privacy” app you’ve got there.

I’m going back to Facebook Messenger, where at least the privacy failings are obvious.

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The developers swear up and down that they don’t; there’s a colossal row in the comments on the piece (and an update in the blogpost, not backing down). It seems to me that what happens is this: Signal notes when a new number joins, and if someone else has Signal installed and also has that person’s number in their address book, Signal notes that they can now communicate that way. But it doesn’t distribute the number to people who don’t have the number already. (Otherwise your Signal contacts would have every phone number of every person who ever joined.) Zawinski insists his number was distributed. I don’t think so. Noted here because it’s such a huge row, and an example of how one can misinterpret what one sees. After all, if someone is in your contacts, that implies you have their number – so they likely have yours, right?
link to this extract


The internet, privacy and terrorism… • Paul Bernal’s Blog

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The internet is something we all use – and it’s immensely useful. Yes, Google is a really good way to find out information – that’s why we all use it. The Mail seems shocked by this – not that it’s particularly difficult to know how a car might be used to drive somewhere and to crash into people. It’s not specifically the ‘terrorists’ friend, but a useful tool for all of us.

The same is true about WhatsApp – and indeed other forms of communication. Yes, they can be used by ‘bad guys’, and in ways that are bad – but they are also excellent tools for the rest of us. If you do something to ban ‘secret texts’ (effectively by undermining encryption), then actually you’re banning private and confidential communications – both of which are crucial for pretty much all of us.

The same is true of privacy itself. We all need it. Undermining it – for example by building in backdoors to services like WhatsApp – undermines us all. Further, calls for mass surveillance damage us all – and attacks like that at Westminster absolutely do not help build the case for more of it. Precisely the opposite. To the surprise of no-one who works in privacy, it turns out that the attacker was already known to the authorities – so did not need to be found by mass surveillance. The same has been true of the perpetrators of all the major terrorist attacks in the West in recent years. The murderers of Lee Rigby. The Boston Bombers. The Charlie Hebdo shooters. The Sydney siege perpetrators. The Bataclan killers. None of these attacks needed identifying through mass surveillance. At a time when resources are short, to spend time, money, effort and expertise on mass surveillance rather than improving targeted intelligence, putting more human intelligence into place – more police, more investigators rather than more millions into the hands of IT contractors – is hard to defend.

What is also hard to defend is the kind of journalism that produces headlines like that in the Mail [“Google, the terrorists’ friend], or indeed in the Times. Journalists should know better. They should know all too well the importance of privacy and confidentiality – they know when they need to protect their own sources, and get rightfully up in arms when the police monitor their communications and endanger their sources. They should know that ‘blocking terror websites’ is a short step away from political censorship, and potentially highly damaging to freedom of expression – and freedom of the press in particular.

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Journalists don’t get much chance to resist what their newsdesks or editors tell them is going to be the story on papers like the Mail. They can, but they’ll find work intolerable for some time afterward.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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