Start Up: Google’s search problem (and ad solution), where pianists look, Mac Pro lives!, and more

Hashing! Or hashtags! It’s much the same, isn’t it? Picture by AJC1 on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Phony VPN services are cashing in on America’s war on privacy • Motherboard

Nicholas Deleon:


Don’t look now, but online scammers are already hard at work taking advantage of newly signed legislation that allows Internet Service Providers to sell your online privacy, including your web browser history, to the highest bidder without your consent.

I received an email yesterday from a purported Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider called MySafeVPN claiming to be affiliated with Plex, the streaming media startup that I’ve written about many times in the past. The email led with ominous marketing speak alluding to “recent changes to US privacy bills, UK privacy laws, and more,” asserting that Plex users concerned about their ISP gaining access to their download history should, you know, sign up for their VPN service. How convenient.


It wasn’t affiliated with Plex. And so it goes on. Scammers pick up quick on this stuff.
link to this extract

Google to allow ‘brand safety’ monitoring by outside firms – WSJ

Jack Marshall and Jack Nicas:


Google on Monday unveiled measures meant to help marketers track where advertisements appear across YouTube, in the wake of controversy over the company’s placement of ads alongside videos with objectionable content.

The tech giant, a unit of Alphabet Inc., GOOGL -0.49% told marketers and advertisers that it plans to allow third-party measurement companies to monitor where ads appear on YouTube, and to report back to marketers on the “brand safety” of its videos.

Google already offers similar functionality allowing marketers to track whether their ads were “viewable” or not—meaning whether they actually appeared on users’ screens.

According to executives at ad agencies, Google also has promised to offer video-level reporting across YouTube by the third quarter of this year.


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Acer suffers net loss per share of NT$1.62 in 4Q16 due to intangible asset impairment • Digitimes


Acer has released its financial report for the fourth quarter of 2016, posting net loss per share of NT$1.62 (US$0.051) for 2016 due to recognition of NT$6.36 billion (US$197 million) in impairment of intangible assets in the fourth quarter in accordance with IAS (International Accounting Standard) 36.

Of the intangible asset impairment, NT$6.21 billion was attributable to iGware, a cloud computing company acquired by Acer in 2012, and NT$150 million to brand value of Gateway’s and Packard Bell’s trademarks, Acer said. Following Acer’s in-house development of cloud computing products and services, iGware had been incapable of generating revenues and thus its intangible asset value had to be written off, Acer explained.


Clouds are hard. Also: Acer is on the skids. Its PC margins are tiny, the numbers sold have been falling, and so has their average price.
link to this extract • Mastodon


Mastodon is a free, open-source social network. A decentralized alternative to commercial platforms, it avoids the risks of a single company monopolizing your communication. Pick a server that you trust — whichever you choose, you can interact with everyone else. Anyone can run their own Mastodon instance and participate in the social network seamlessly.


What do we think, three months for this latest “Twitter”? It’s already overwhelmed by demand.
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Baselworld 2017: even Switzerland is obsessed with smartwatches now • WIRED

David Pierce:


The Swiss watch market exists within a blissful parallel universe. In this magical place, people celebrate the contemplative beauty of a perpetual calendar complication, and happily pay five or six figures for mechanical timepieces that don’t actually keep time accurately. This universe arose during the Renaissance, and changes slowly. The heritage, the history, the—ahem—timelessness of it all remains precisely the point.

That universe is unraveling. The watch industry is in a precipitous decline, one that started when people realized their smartphone does a pretty good job telling the time. Last year, Apple bragged about being the second-biggest watchmaker on the planet. Swiss watch exports, meanwhile, fell 16.1% in the first half of 2016, the fastest decline ever.  The industry faces intense competition from companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, and Huawei that don’t know much about complications but know everything about making the connected devices people love.


Though a lot of Switzerland’s problems are to do with crackdowns on sales to China.
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iPhone App will not stay open – just flashes when trying to launch – Install / Device Setup • Garadget Community

Garadget is a Bluetooth-enabled garage door unlocker. And here’s a customer on the support forums with a complaint:


rdmart73d: Just installed and attempting to register a door when the app started doing this. Have uninstalled and reinstalled iphone app, powered phone off/on – wondering what kind of piece of shit I just purchased here…

garadget3d [the operator]:
Martin: The abusive language here and in your negative Amazon review, submitted minutes after experiencing a technical difficulty, only demonstrates your poor impulse control. I’m happy to provide the technical support to the customers on my Saturday night but I’m not going to tolerate any tantrums.

At this time your only option is return Garadget to Amazon for refund. Your unit ID 2f0036… will be denied server connection.


Hey, now that’s what I call customer service.. of a sort. It made the front of YCombinator’s Hacker News. Though as Mr Garadget pointed out, Elon Musk once did the same. (Hint: don’t.)
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Pianist eye tracking • FlowingData


What does a pianist look at while playing? Put a pair of eye tracking glasses on a professional while he plays. Then compare to a student.


The most interesting part is when they each have to sight-read a piece that they haven’t seen before.
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Spotify’s new deal with Universal Music Group means some albums will go behind a paywall • Recode

Peter Kafka:


Some of the most popular music in the world is going behind a paywall on the world’s most popular streaming service.

After months of negotiating, Spotify has signed a licensing deal with Universal Music Group. The big idea: Spotify has agreed to let Universal artists restrict new albums to Spotify’s 50 million paying subscribers for two weeks, while letting free users listen to singles.

In return, Spotify may get a break on the fees Universal charges for its music, depending on certain subscriber metrics. And that will give Spotify a big boost as it prepares to go public in 2018.


Lower fees for music is a huge win for Spotify – and if people are encouraged to sign up to get access, that helps it even more. Advertising users are a lossmaker on streaming music services.
link to this extract

The Mac Pro lives • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:


Let’s not beat around the bush. I have great news to share:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

I also have not-so-great news:

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros. The $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. The $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 GPUs. Nothing else is changing, including the ports. No USB-C, no Thunderbolt 3 (and so no support for the LG UltraFine 5K display).

But more good news, too:

Apple has “great” new iMacs in the pipeline, slated for release “this year”, including configurations specifically targeted at large segments of the pro market.


The Mac Pro lives, in the sense that it isn’t dead. Ben Thompson’s theory about the lack of updates was correct: Apple designed itself, as Craig Federighi says in this interview, “into a thermal corner” – it couldn’t add the GPUs that were needed as demand got greater.

What’s not mentioned is that the previous “cheesegrater” Mac Pro design did the modularity job just fine; it was one of the most modular designs Apple ever made, which is also why pros are hanging on to it and squeezing every last drop out of its performance.

It’s naive to say that Apple should have just reverted to the cheesegrater design when it realised that the cylinder was snookered, but to take three years to even acknowledge the problem makes it look as though it prizes bad new decisions over good old ones, and appearance over functionality. And that’s bad design – because design, remember, is how it works.
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Social Media: Counter-terrorism: necessary hashtags? • UK Parliament

Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, on the peculiar comment by Home Secretary Amber Rudd on censoring content that we need “people who know the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff even being put up” :


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to her public statement of 26 March 2017, what her Department’s definition of “necessary hashtags” is.

Answered by: Sarah Newton Answered on: 03 April 2017

The Home Secretary was referring to image hashing, the process of detecting the recurrence of an image or video online.

Hashing has proved effective in the removal of images of child sexual exploitation and has been used by a number of organisations including the Internet Watch Foundation and INTERPOL.
In December 2016 at the EU IT Forum, Facebook announced the development of a cross-industry shared hashing database to improve the detection and removal of terrorist content online. The implementation of this database will help to clear large caches of known terrorist content from a range of online platforms.

The Home Secretary is continuing to challenge Communications Service Providers to improve the automation of detection and subsequent removal of new terrorist content online with the formation of a new industry led forum which will, amongst other things, lead on technical innovations.


Ah, well. That’s actually closer to making sense. Remarkable how a little misquoted jargon can make one seem like an idiot rather than well-informed.
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A deep look at Google’s biggest-ever search quality crisis • Search Engine Land

Danny Sullivan:


The problem of fake news or dubious content appearing in Google’s “Top Stories” section is largely down to Google itself. It deliberately chose to allow publications beyond vetted news sites into this area back in October 2014. That’s why those fake election results appeared there. Changing the name of the section to “Top Stories” last December didn’t change the underlying problem.

Shifting back to only allowing vetted sites won’t solve the issue of Breitbart content showing up. Breitbart is a vetted site that was admitted into Google News. The only way to keep that content out would be to ban the site from Google News entirely. Some might agree with that; others might find there’s a strong argument that a publication that’s one of the few to get a one-on-one interview with President Donald Trump deserves to be retained as a news source.

Search will never be perfect. In the end, it’s good that Google is going through this search quality crisis. This new pressure is forcing it to attend to issues that can no longer be allowed to fester.

It’s not clear, however, if Google will be able to solve its biggest issue overall: the drip-drip-drip of criticism for problems that no search engine can ever fully eliminate, given how broad search is.

Google handles 5.5 billion searches per day. Per day. Billions of searches, with around 15% being entirely new, never asked before. Google tries to answer these questions by producing results from billions of pages from across the web. It’s an impossible task to get perfectly right every time.

Pick any search, and you can come up with something that will return objectionable or questionable results. This isn’t a new issue, as some of Google’s past search quality crises demonstrate. But possibly it’s growing, either as more questionable content flows onto the web or as more people are hyperaware of checking to see if such content surfaces in search results.


The reason Google supplanted the first generation of web search engines is that it produced better results. The rivals were overwhelmed by spam and junk. If Google just gives us spam and junk and outright lies, then it’s no better than what we had before – except it’s dominant, where they weren’t.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: Google’s search problem (and ad solution), where pianists look, Mac Pro lives!, and more

  1. I still have my cheesegrater Mac Pro in the office. Upgraded 5 times with new ram, hard drives (now solid state) and a graphics board. Still works great although its now the office test server rather than my main machine. (it was replaced by an iMac, which is now used as a display because the office switched to giving us all laptops and I hated the HP 24 inch displays they gave us). It reached a point that I almost put a padlock on the Mac Pro to stop IT from removing it (they don’t like machines older than 5 years in the office). Then we reached an understanding. They would pretend it had been removed and I would pretend I wouldn’t notice it sitting in my office.

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