Start Up: Fyre Festival screwup foretold, Chromebook v iPad, how many Surfaces sold?, and more


Greenland’s ice cap is melting – and there could be a positive feedback loop driving it. Photo by Stig Nygaard 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.

The man behind Fyre Festival comes with a list of expensive, unfulfilled promises • Buzzfeed

Salvador Hernandez:

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Billy McFarland’s company promised two luxurious weekends of music in the Bahamas, lush accommodations, and delectable food. What they got was the fiasco people now know as the Fyre Festival, where they were instead given disaster relief tents and lunches served in styrofoam boxes.

“It’s a very, very tough day for all of us,” McFarland told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview Friday.

McFarland described what he said was an ambitious project that quickly grew to be bigger than what the 300-person staff could handle on the island of Exumas.

But the college dropout from New Jersey has a knack for promising lavish and luxurious services aimed at rich and elite clientele, often falling short on what was pledged.

Three years before the disastrous Fyre Festival, McFarland launched a credit card company and private club dubbed Magnises, taking cues from the exclusive American Express black card. But with wealthy young socialites years away from the spending power of the black AmEx, the Magnises card was aimed at a younger audience.

The card, launched in 2014, promised tickets for hard-to-get-in-to shows, clubs, and events with the social elite for a $250 annual fee, but members told Business Insider the company often delivered tickets late, for the wrong date, or not at all.

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If you didn’t drink deep on Friday or over the weekend, this is all the schadenfreude you’ll need for the week ahead. More reading at Vulture and NYMag (“I worked at Fyre Festival. It was always going to be a disaster”).
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Uh oh, Chromebook… meet the new iPad • Swift Teacher

Brian Foutty has a number of interesting takes on what iPads can do that Chromebooks can’t; this though is a new one on me:

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Students who did want to be active in the class would use the iPad cover and stand up the iPad so as to create a wall between me and them. After repeatedly observing this behavior with one particular student I had, I implemented a “screen down” policy where the iPad had to be lying flat on the desk or at most could be at an incline using the iPad cover. This subtle change made a huge difference in my classes. I no longer felt as though my students could hide behind their iPads and mentally “check out” from the lesson. The feeling I had about the screens was confirmed for me when I attended the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Boston in fall 2013. Dr. Ruben Puendetura was the Keynote speaker and part of his presentation that day covered this topic. What his research had found[^3], which can be found on Dr. Puendetura’s blog, with mobile devices (to include any laptops, iPad devices, and Chromebooks) was that when there is a screen that folds up to a 90-degree angle to a keyboard, it creates a barrier between the student and teacher that negatively impacts learning.

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He also tackles the “Chromebooks are cheaper” differential.
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Greenland is melting • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:

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The ice sheet [that covers Greenland] is a holdover from the last ice age, when mile-high glaciers extended not just across Greenland but over vast stretches of the Northern Hemisphere. In most places—Canada, New England, the upper Midwest, Scandinavia—the ice melted away about ten thousand years ago. In Greenland it has—so far, at least—persisted. At the top of the sheet there’s airy snow, known as firn, that fell last year and the year before and the year before that. Buried beneath is snow that fell when Washington crossed the Delaware and, beneath that, snow from when Hannibal crossed the Alps. The deepest layers, which were laid down long before recorded history, are under enormous pressure, and the firn is compressed into ice. At the very bottom there’s snow that fell before the beginning of the last ice age, a hundred and fifteen thousand years ago.

The ice sheet is so big—at its center, it’s two miles high—that it creates its own weather. Its mass is so great that it deforms the earth, pushing the bedrock several thousand feet into the mantle. Its gravitational tug affects the distribution of the oceans.

In recent years, as global temperatures have risen, the ice sheet has awoken from its postglacial slumber. Melt streams like the Rio Behar have always formed on the ice; they now appear at higher and higher elevations, earlier and earlier in the spring. This year’s melt season began so freakishly early, in April, that when the data started to come in, many scientists couldn’t believe it…

…An ice cube left on a picnic table will melt in an orderly, predictable fashion. With a glacier the size of Greenland’s, the process is a good deal more complicated. There are all sorts of feedback loops, and these loops may, in turn, spin off loops and sub-loops. For instance, when water accumulates on the surface of an ice sheet, the reflectivity changes. More sunlight gets absorbed, which results in more melt, which leads to still more absorption, in a cycle that builds on itself. Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, calls this “melting cannibalism.” As moulins form at higher elevations, more water is carried from the surface of the ice to the bedrock beneath. This lubricates the base, which, in turn, speeds the movement of ice toward the ocean. At a certain point, these feedback loops become self-sustaining. It is possible that that point has already been reached.

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link to this extract


EPA website removes climate science site from public view after two decades • The Washington Post

Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin:

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday evening that its website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions…

…“As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” J.P. Freire, the agency’s associate administrator for public affairs, said in a statement. “We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.”

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I’m very hopeful that karma will be visited on those involved in a manner so befitting their actions that it sets a lesson to the world. This is censorship: action by a government to suppress information useful to its citizens.
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Russian-controlled telecom hijacks financial services’ Internet traffic • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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On Wednesday, large chunks of network traffic belonging to MasterCard, Visa, and more than two dozen other financial services companies were briefly routed through a Russian government-controlled telecom under unexplained circumstances that renew lingering questions about the trust and reliability of some of the most sensitive Internet communications.

Anomalies in the border gateway protocol—which routes large-scale amounts of traffic among Internet backbones, ISPs, and other large networks—are common and usually the result of human error. While it’s possible Wednesday’s five- to seven-minute hijack of 36 large network blocks may also have been inadvertent, the high concentration of technology and financial services companies affected made the incident “curious” to engineers at network monitoring service BGPmon. What’s more, the way some of the affected networks were redirected indicated their underlying prefixes had been manually inserted into BGP tables, most likely by someone at Rostelecom, the Russian government-controlled telecom that improperly announced ownership of the blocks.

“I would classify this as quite suspicious,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at network management firm Dyn, told Ars. “Typically accidental leaks appear more voluminous and indiscriminate. This would appear to be targeted to financial institutions. A typical cause of these errors [is] in some sort of internal traffic engineering, but it would seem strange that someone would limit their traffic engineering to mostly financial networks.”

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Just making a note of that for future reference.
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How technology created a global village — and put us at each other’s throats • The Boston Globe

Nick Carr:

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If our assumption that communication brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone — a billion and a half more, the United Nations reports, than have access to a working toilet. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

For years now, psychological and sociological studies have been casting doubt on the idea that communication dissolves differences. The research suggests that the opposite is true: free-flowing information makes personal and cultural differences more salient, turning people against one another instead of bringing them together. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is one of the gloomiest of proverbs. It is also, the evidence indicates, one of the truest.

In a series of experiments reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2007, Harvard psychologist Michael Norton and two colleagues found that, contrary to our instincts, the more we learn about someone else, the more we tend to dislike that person. “Although people believe that knowing leads to liking,” the researchers wrote, “knowing more means liking less.”

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The myth of a superhuman AI • Backchannel

Kevin Kelly:

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buried in this scenario of a takeover of superhuman artificial intelligence are five assumptions which, when examined closely, are not based on any evidence. These claims might be true in the future, but there is no evidence to date to support them. The assumptions behind a superhuman intelligence arising soon are:

• Artificial intelligence is already getting smarter than us, at an exponential rate.
• We’ll make AIs into a general purpose intelligence, like our own.
• We can make human intelligence in silicon.
• Intelligence can be expanded without limit.
• Once we have exploding superintelligence it can solve most of our problems.

In contradistinction to this orthodoxy, I find the following five heresies to have more evidence to support them.

• Intelligence is not a single dimension, so “smarter than humans” is a meaningless concept.
• Humans do not have general purpose minds, and neither will AIs.
• Emulation of human thinking in other media will be constrained by cost.
• Dimensions of intelligence are not infinite.
• Intelligences are only one factor in progress.

If the expectation of a superhuman AI takeover is built on five key assumptions that have no basis in evidence, then this idea is more akin to a religious belief — a myth.

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link to this extract


How Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency changed games • Venturebeat

Dean Takahashi on Anita Sarkeesian’s decision to stop making her Feminist Frequency videos critiquing video games:

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Sarkeesian was important because she forced us to take a look at battles that we thought had already been won. And she did it during Gamergate, one of the most vitriolic periods in game industry history as the power the Internet and hatred came together to silence critics.

One of the more interesting Feminist Frequency videos for me was about how men can end sexism. It listed five things men can do to help. First, it says listen to women. Educate yourself. Challenge other men. Don’t get defensive. And learn from mistakes. Those are simple suggestions for changing any behavior, but it took Sarkeesian to make us look harder at sexist behavior and think about it more.

I’m the father of three daughters. I’m not sure where they will wind up working. I hope they will choose whatever makes them happy, but I hope nobody else — or the greater forces of society — nudges them into traditional choices or actively pushes them away from roles in technology or games.

To do my part, I draw attention to the issue of sexism within games. I actively seek out women to write about, and I also seek out women to speak at our conferences. Some criticize me because we don’t have enough, and I agree with them. But awareness of the importance of finding more diverse people to speak is always on my mind.

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Microsoft: Surface revenues lower than expected in its latest quarter • ZDNet

Mary Jo Foley:

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Microsoft’s third quarter fiscal 2017 Surface performance came in lower than company officials had been expecting.

Surface revenue decreased $285m or 26%, compared to the year-ago quarter, primarily due to a reduction in volumes sold, according to Microsoft’s 10-Q for the quarter. Surface revenues this quarter were $831m, down from $1.1bn in the same quarter a year ago.

That decline is not simply because Microsoft didn’t launch any new Surface tablets or laptops in that quarter (which ran from January 2017 to March 2017). Officials already were well aware that the successor to Surface Pro 4 wasn’t coming then, nor was the Surface Book 2.

Microsoft may launch an Intel Kaby Lake-based Surface Pro 5, a successor to its Surface Pro 4 tablet, some time relatively soon (though not on May 2), according to sources. There’s also been some speculation that Microsoft may introduce soon another new Surface device running its Windows 10 Cloud release – a possible successor to its now-discontinued Surface 3 tablet – aimed at the education market on May 2.

Microsoft did begin selling in earnest the Surface Studio, Microsoft’s first all-in-one PC launched in the Fall of 2016, and the updated Surface Book with Performance Base. But neither of those niche products was expected to be a huge seller.

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If Surface revenues were $831m, you can estimate the number of sales by attaching an average selling price. If the ASP is $831, it sold a million.

Prices: on Microsoft’s site the gigantic Surface Studio is $3,000 (base config) to $4,100 (top-end), which compared to $831 is 3.6x-4.9x.
The Surface Book is $1,499-$3,199 (1.8x-3.8x).
The Surface Book with Performance Base is $2,399-$3,299 (2.9x-4x).
The Surface Pro 4 is $799 – $1,549 (1x-1.9x).

Given that data, it’s very hard to see Microsoft having sold more than 1m Surface devices in the quarter. (My best guess, with a spreadsheet, suggested about 0.6m.)

IIt depends too on what price you think it sold them at, rather than the “advertised” price: if you assume the “wholesale” price is 50% of the advertised price, you double the number sold. So let’s be generous: total Surface device sales could have hit a million in the quarter.
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A very false narrative: Microsoft Surface vs Apple iPad, Mac • Apple Insider

Daniel Eran Dilger:

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We definitely do know that those “missing” iPad buyers didn’t run out and get Surface Pro machines to run the Full Windows. Microsoft simply hasn’t sold enough of them. Across nearly five years, Microsoft has only sold about 14-17 million in total. Across 16 quarters, that’s only about a million per quarter.

At its peak, Apple was selling more than 14 million iPads every quarter, consistently for two years. Apple’s rapid sales of iPads created an installed base of about 300 million users. So while iPad is “down dramatically” and Surface is in certain quarters “up” compared to its previous performance, iPad is still leading global sales of tablets and servicing a large installed base, while Surface is barely moving units.

Microsoft’s Surface business isn’t really growing. Like Apple’s Mac and iPad sales, Microsoft’s Surface sales are more cyclical than typical commodity PC or phone sales, peaking in the holiday quarter. Unlike Apple’s sales, Microsoft Surface hardware revenues (blue) have only hovered around $1 billion quarterly since it launched, with its two best quarters hitting $1.3 billion.

Compared to Apple’s $5 to $7bn quarterly Mac revenues (gold), that’s not much. Alternatively, it’s not much compared to iPad sales, which have ranged between $4 and $9bn per quarter (green). However, Surface straddles the business of both, making the really fair comparison Apple’s total Mac and iPad businesses together.

Surface revenue not only pales in comparison to Apple’s hardware, but its best quarterly performance has still remained $1bn shy of the $2.3bn in quarterly revenues that Windows Phone hit back in 2015. Remember what a great business Windows Lumia phones were?

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: a number of peoeople have asked which UK carrier I’m with which offers unlimited data and free roaming in a number of countries (including the US). I’m with Three UK, which used to offer a £15 per month SIM-only unlimited data/texts contract. That is now £24 per month, but the plans are generous by UK terms – especially with the roaming.

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