Start Up: the ad cutback starts, the data raid on Facebook, Pandora’s last chance, bitcoin struggles, and more


If all these cars and trucks were autonomous and electric-powered, how would this picture change? Photo by Eneas 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.

Cars and second order consequences • Benedict Evans

Evans muses at length on what could follow from cars becoming autonomous and electric. There are many, many threads to this; what we really need is a history of what happened when horses were replaced by cars. So many stables, so much provision of hay, so many grooms, suddenly confronted a changed world. That’s coming for us too, except we should be more prepared:

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Moving to electric reduces the number of moving parts in a car by something like an order of magnitude. It’s less about replacing the fuel tank with a battery than ripping out the spine. That remakes the car industry and its supplier base (as well as related industries such as machine tools), but it also changes the repair environment, and the life of a vehicle. Roughly half of US spending on car maintenance goes on things that are directly attributable to the internal combustion engine, and much of that spending will just go away. In the longer term, this change might affect the lifespan of a vehicle: in an on-demand world vehicles would have higher loading, but absent that, fewer mechanical breakages (and fewer or no accidents) might mean a longer replacement cycle, once the rate of technology implementation settles down. 

Next, gas itself is bought in gas stations, of which there are about 150k in the USA. Those will also go away (unless there are radical changes in how long it takes to charge an EV). Since gas is sold at very low margins, these retailers make their actual money as convenience stores, so what happens to the products that are sold there? Some of this demand will be displaced to other retailers, and some may be going online anyway (especially if an Amazon drone can get you a bag of Cheesy Puffs in 15 minutes). But snacks, sodas and tobacco sell meaningful proportions of their total volume as impulse purchases attached to gasoline. Some of that volume might just go away. 

Tobacco in particular might be interesting – well over half of US tobacco sales happens at gas stations, and there are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption – that cigarettes are often an impulse purchase and if they’re not in front of you then many smokers are less likely to buy them. Car crashes kill 35k people a year in the USA, but tobacco kills 500k. 

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link to this extract


Chase had ads on 400,000 sites. Then on just 5,000. Same results. • NYTimes.com

Sapna Maheshwari:

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Much of the promise of online advertising hinges on the vast reach of the web, and the ability to reach people on niche sites at low prices. Index Exchange, an ad exchange, has estimated that the titles owned by the top 50 traditional media companies account for 5% or fewer of the trillions of ad impressions available for sale each day. Google’s display network alone includes more than two million websites. YouTube has more than three million ad-supported channels, according to the analytics company OpenSlate, which says the average $100,000 campaign on the platform runs on more than 7,000 channels.

If more advertisers follow JPMorgan’s lead and see similar results, it could hurt the operators of smaller sites that make up the so-called long tail of the internet, as well as the advertising technology companies that profit from funneling trillions of ad impressions from brands to consumers through systems that mimic a stock exchange, according to Eric Franchi, co-founder of the ad technology firm Undertone.

“If you charge a percentage of all of the ads that run through your platform, then the prospects can be pretty dim if all of a sudden your volume has been cut by 95 percent,” Mr. Franchi said. “So many of these companies, and some of them are public, tout the number of ads they deliver per second, per day. If you start seeing more marketers move in this direction, it will be pretty interesting. What are the metrics then that those companies start to report?”

JPMorgan started looking into preapproving sites, a strategy known as whitelisting, this month after The New York Times showed it an ad for Chase’s private client services on a site called Hillary 4 Prison. It was under a headline claiming that the actor Elijah Wood had revealed “the horrifying truth about the Satanic liberal perverts who run Hollywood.”

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Facebook failed to protect 30 million users from having their data harvested by Trump campaign affiliate • The Intercept

Mattathias Schwartz:

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The task posted by “Global Science Research” appeared ordinary, at least on the surface. The company offered [Amazon “mechanical turkers” – humans on piecework] $1 or $2 to complete an online survey. But there were a couple of additional requirements as well. First, Global Science Research was only interested in American turkers. Second, the turkers had to download a Facebook app before they could collect payment. Global Science Research said the app would “download some information about you and your network … basic demographics and likes of categories, places, famous people, etc. from you and your friends.”

“Our terms of service clearly prohibit misuse,” said a spokesperson for Amazon Web Services, by email. “When we learned of this activity back in 2015, we suspended the requester for violating our terms of service.”

Although Facebook’s early growth was driven by closed, exclusive networks at college and universities, it has gradually herded users to agree to increasingly permissive terms of service. By 2014, anything a user’s friends could see was also potentially visible to the developers of any app that they chose to download. Some of the turkers noticed that the Global Science Research app appeared to be taking advantage of Facebook’s porousness. “Someone can learn everything about you by looking at hundreds of pics, messages, friends, and likes,” warned one, writing on a message board. “More than you realize.” Others were more blasé. “I don’t put any info on FB,” one wrote. “Not even my real name … it’s backwards that people put sooo much info on Facebook, and then complain when their privacy is violated.”

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You guessed it – siphoned off into SCL, a Cambridge University company which had a spinoff called Cambridge Analytica. Recruited 185,000 people; grabbed details only about US users numbering 30 million.
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Pandora CEO, pressured to sell, gets last chance to beat Spotify • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw:

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Once a pariah in the music industry, Pandora has repaired relations with record labels and publishers by settling disputes over royalty fees and promising to help promote artists. The Minneapolis-born Westergren, a musician, emailed the heads of the three major record labels the morning he took the top job and hammered out deals for their catalogs within a few months.

Yet patience is wearing thin in some quarters. Pandora reported a year-over-year drop in listeners in each of the past three quarters, while Spotify added more than 20 million paying customers in less than year. Advertising growth has slowed, and the shares, issued at $16 in June 2011, peaked at $40.44 in March 2014 and are now trading at $11.69.

“Pandora has clearly failed as a public company,’’ Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG LLC, wrote in a note this month. The company must sell itself or risk war with Keith Meister’s Corvex Management, the second-largest shareholder, he warned.

Billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. and its Sirius XM Holdings Inc. subsidiary have expressed interest in buying Pandora, while also sending the stock down 6% in late February after saying the company was overvalued.

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Pandora’s markt cap is $2.8bn – what the market thinks its assets plus its future profits are worth. Which is good, because its past profits are pretty much zero – it went public in 2011 and I can only find two quarters where it may have made an operating profit.
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Bitcoin is tearing itself apart again, and its price is yo-yoing • Quartz

Joon Ian Wong:

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Supporters of Core argue that the Unlimited code is riddled with bugs. Indeed, last week a bug was exploited, sending 70% of Unlimited nodes offline thus reducing the amount of processing power devoted to implementing it.

But Core is making a larger, philosophical point, about who controls the bitcoin network. They don’t like the idea of miners setting block sizes because they believe it increases centralization of bitcoin. Without a block size cap, powerful miners can simply mine bigger blocks, and thus be responsible for larger chunks of the bitcoin network, entrenching themselves further.

There’s also a struggle about bitcoin’s function. As Adam White, who runs the GDAX exchange, tells Forbes, the Core camp wants to treat bitcoin as digital gold: a finite resource whose fundamental properties can’t be changed. The Unlimited folks want bitcoin to be digital cash, with limitless transaction capacity so that everyday payments can be recorded on the blockchain. Vinny Lingham, a noted analyst of the bitcoin industry, observes: “Roger [Ver] wants cheap coffee transactions, Core wants to ensure [bitcoin is] sufficiently decentralized and secure.”

Still, bitcoin’s blocks are getting filled up, meaning transactions can’t be processed quickly enough—hence the urgency for a solution. Critics say that Core developers’ proposal for a 2 MB block size, SegWit, simply delays the inevitable—a hard fork—because it doesn’t raise the cap enough. A solution to Satoshi’s block size limit can no longer be avoided.

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Bitcoin: back to wrangling about quite basic things in order to make it scale.
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The new Twitter @-replies are giving me an ulcer • Motherboard

Sarah Jeong:

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Twitter has rolled out its new @-replies to me about three or four times now, ambushing me with its unspeakable badness on the iPhone app or web Twitter. Today it rolled out for everyone and it makes me want to throw all my devices at a wall.

Does anyone at Twitter even use Twitter?

The new interface removes @-handles from tweets. This removes handles from the character length of the tweet, allowing you to add up to 50 handles in a thread. Worse, it makes it very, very difficult to untag people.

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I don’t use Twitter. That is, I don’t use the official client, or the website; I use Tweetbot, a third-party app, which isn’t free, but doesn’t do that annoying thing. The only thing you don’t get is polls (can’t create or see them), but that’s hardly a loss. I’m hoping quite hard that this “improvement” won’t reach it.

Other change made by Twitter: changed the default icon from an egg to.. something else. FastCo has a breathless article on how hard this was, to which one says: Twitter, your whole branding is about birds. Eggs are the perfect “starting out” icon. Changing the icon doesn’t get rid of the people who are obnoxious eggs. It just weakens your branding.

Sometimes, Twitter’s internal meetings seem like multiple episodes of Silicon Valley.
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When the ‘S’ in HTTPS also stands for shady • Engadget

Violet Blue:

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Let’s Encrypt is an automated service that lets people turn their old unencrypted URLs into safely encrypted HTTPS addresses with a type of file called a certificate. It’s terrific, especially because certificates are expensive (overpriced, actually) and many people can’t afford them. So it’s easy to argue that the Let’s Encrypt service has done more than we may ever realize to strengthen the security of the internet and users everywhere.

But like so, so painfully many great ideas from the tech sector, Let’s Encrypt apparently wasn’t built with abuse in mind. And so – of course – that’s exactly what’s happening.

Because it’s now free and easy to add HTTPS to your site, criminals who exploit trusting internet users think Let’s Encrypt is pretty groovy. When a site has HTTPS, not only do users know they can trust they’re on an encrypted connection, but browsers like Google’s Chrome display an eye-catching little green padlock and the word “Secure” in the address bar. What’s more, privacy and security advocates, from the EFF and Mozilla (who founded it) to little people like yours truly, have done everything possible to push people to seek these out as a signifier that a website is safe…

The fact that Let’s Encrypt is now being used to make phishing sites look legit is a total burn for us, and a potential house fire for users who rely on simple cues like the green padlock for assurance. According to certificate reseller The SSL Store, “between January 1st, 2016 and March 6th, 2017, Let’s Encrypt has issued a total of 15,270 SSL certificates containing the word ‘PayPal.'”

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One could also point the finger at domain registrars which allow people to register domains which contain some variation of “Paypal”. Arguably, they’re the ones who are principally to blame here since they give the criminals a platform.
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Arron Banks: ‘Brexit was a war. We won. There’s no turning back now’ • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr interviews the principal donor behind UKIP and the UK’s Leave campaign, who also plans to fund MPs standing against those MPs who stood for Remain at the next election:

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What is Banks flogging? Andrew Breitbart, the founder and informing spirit of Breitbart, believed politics is downstream from culture. First change the culture, then the politics will follow. Take the existing culture and subtly distort it. Banks has launched a new politics site, Westmonster, and in his sights is the Westminster elite and the metropolitan elite. He levels this at me. I point out: “You’re the privately educated multimillionaire who’s sitting here drinking white wine in Islington.”

The shame, I think, is that he could have been a leftie. There is a strong streak of social justice that runs through him. Or social something. Chippiness is part of it. But that’s no bad thing. But he’s not a leftie. And in the US, the permanent revolution is well under way. Steve Bannon is masterminding a silent coup: the institutions of government are being systematically dismantled. The relation of citizens to the state is being re-engineered. Trump, the businessman, is redefining them as consumers. Last week the US senate approved the right of telecoms companies to sell their customers’ browsing history – a huge step forward in renegotiating the relationship between individuals and their rights from that of democratic participants to end users. This is government as platform monopoly. Government as modelled on Google and Facebook. And what’s coming is platform democracy, where the company/government retains the right to change the user agreement at any time.

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What I got from this interview is that Banks doesn’t have any firm political philosophy – he is mostly against stuff, but there’s nothing particular he’s trying to build. UKIP and Trump were fine when they were fighting against something; but now that’s gone, they’re revealed as empty.

This gives me some hope in the face of the alt-right: again and again, history doesn’t flow in their direction.
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Apple is pushing iPad like never before • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

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In order to properly assess all of the recent changes to iPad strategy, a closer look at sales is needed. While overall iPad sales have been in decline for years, reports of iPad’s death have been greatly exaggerated. There is much more going on behind the scenes.

iPad sales have faced one major headwind in recent years. This item explains a significant portion of the sales decline. It’s not inferior software, weak storytelling, or even a longer upgrade cycle. Instead, the iPad’s problem has been the iPad mini.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture. As seen in Exhibit 3, iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini. It’s not that the iPad mini form factor is going away, but rather that it will play a smaller role going forward. 

iPad mini sales weakness has masked stronger sales trends for larger iPads.

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That iPad mini bulge is fascinating – I’d like to see the graph drawn with the iPad mini part on the bottom, rather than on top.
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The death of interactive infographics? • Startup Grind – Medium

Dominikus Baur:

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Last year I was lucky enough to go to the Information+ conference in Vancouver where Gregor Aisch, who works at the New York Times, gave a talk about the publication’s graphics and their impact. And the scary resumé of the talk was: Barely anyone interacts with the New York Times’ graphics. The New York Times makes arguably some of the best interactives in the field, which made Gregor’s talk even more depressing. His number of only 10–15% of people clicking on buttons — even essential ones — tells you that interactives are a waste of time and money.

Gregor’s editor, Archie Tse, talked about this earlier in the year at the Malofiej conference, and turned this fact into some utterly depressing rules. One of them was, for example, “If you make a tooltip or rollover, assume no one will ever see it.”

85% of page visitors simply ignore them, missing out on information hidden behind interaction. On top of that, interactives are expensive to make — they have to work across devices, using trackpads and fingers. They’re error-prone and can tarnish the publication’s reception within their audience.

So why even bother?

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You could argue that the 10-15% are the important ones you want to influence, I guess. (Via Sophie Warnes’s fun data-musing newsletter Fair Warning.)
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mapgubbins – Waste data: Environment Agency’s “journey to open” has come to a grinding halt.

Owen Boswarva:

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In early 2015 the Environment Agency set out a proposal to transition its charged-for datasets “to open” in three tranches: Flood Data by 1 April 2016,  Waste Data by 1 April 2017, and all other datasets by 1 April 2018.

This was in the context of EA’s broader policy to move away from commercial licensing of data assets and towards an open data approach.

Release of the 2016 tranche mostly went to plan, although EA has so far failed to deliver open data on surface water flood risk in England. (Equivalent data is available for Wales.)

Yesterday EA’s data team announced the 2017 tranche: removal of charges on four datasets. These include boundary data for authorised landfill sites and tabular data on permitting of waste sites:

• Environmental Permitting Regulations – Industrial Sites
• Environmental Permitting Regulations – Waste Sites
• Environmental Pollution Incidents
• Permitted Waste Sites – Authorised Landfill Site Boundaries

However: none of these datasets has been released as open data. EA has instead applied its more restrictive “Conditional Licence” [which is incompatible with open reuse].

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Man, it is tedious that the EA can’t just get with the program. Clearly some entrenched thinking there; the accession of Theresa May’s administration has not been a good thing in this space. EA says that “due to data protection issues and the right to be forgotten, this is not possible.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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