Start Up: tablets detach from growth, how cities change, what’s an engineer?, no phones home, and more

A Met Gala outfit isn’t as easy to make as it might look. Photo by eventphotosync 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.

What a physicist sees when she looks at a fancy gown • Racked

Mike McKinnon:


Every year, I’m blown away by the intricate gowns at the Met Gala. I’m impressed not just by the creativity, but by how much math, physics, and engineering is lurking beneath the layers of silk and lace.

The gowns live at the perfect intersection of my interests: I’m a physicist and geophysicist, but I also love textile arts. For my graduate work, I crunched statistics on millions of data points, and my next big project is investigating the mechanics of landslides on asteroids and comets. I’ve invented internally-consistent imaginary physics frameworks for science fiction television series. But I also got my first sewing machine when I was six years old, and my stash of yarn is both a treasured collection and raw material to feed my weaving and knitting. I’ve dabbled in crochet, flirted with needle felting, and have a complete set of tools for hooking rugs. I’ve yet to meet a textile art I don’t want to try at least once.

This pairing of interests has given me insight into how textile arts are another application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sometimes it’s blatant — I knit a hat featuring the home mountain range of the first landslide I studied, and my big brother burst out laughing when I gave him a binary-encoded scarf — but all of it is essential to understanding what’s going on in the creation of a gorgeous couture gown.


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60 years of urban change: midwest • University of Oklahoma

Shane Hampton at the Institute for Quality Communities:


60 years has made a big difference in the urban form of American cities. The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects. Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures. While the period did make way for impressive new projects in many cities, many of the scars are still unhealed.

We put together these sliders to show how cities have changed over half a century.


Lots of fascinating pictures of how things have changed – and there are more regions.
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Damage • Matt Gemmell

On the App Store’s effect on peoples’ expectations of pricing:


One measure of the value of a person’s creative output is what another person is willing to pay for it. Low prices actively court those who place less value on work. That’s not an admonishment; it’s just a simple fact. And no, you can’t balance the price-point and the sales figures to achieve the same income: there are far, far more people who will only buy at $1 (or free, if you’re trying to sell in-app purchases). If you sell at $3 instead, your number of sales will go down by much more than the factor of three that you increased the price by.

If your goal is just to make money temporarily (which is up to you), then the race to the bottom — with all its attendant risks, and its environmentally corrosive effect — is probably your best bet. You also need to acknowledge that you’ve marked your work as being essentially worthless, and that it’ll be discarded just as quickly. Your most vocal supporters will turn on you the minute you ask for more money (remember the extra levels for Monument Valley?). They simply won’t value you enough to even consider paying again, because you’ve already taught them that your work isn’t worth it.


Umm, sort of. Except when the App Store first opened, prices were a *lot* higher, for games such as Super Monkey Ball. Nobody could force them to drop their prices. But there was competition for attention. The culprit is the internet, which exposes anything that depends on attention (via price) to competition from the rest of the world. If you can’t defend your niche against that, you’ll be forced to lower your price – perhaps to destructive effect.

I’d also observe that average prices on Google Play are lower than on the App Store, due to advertising.
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Engineering and yellow lights • All this

“Dr Drang” on that story (it was going around) about Mats Järlström, who was fined by Oregon’s State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for describing himself as an engineer; Drang wonders if Järlström is a “doofus”, or baiting the board:


The [NY] Times article included this nugget in support of baiting: Järlström’s lawsuit is being driven by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian outfit that styles itself as “the National Law Firm for Liberty.” It’s a sad state of affairs that I find myself suspicious whenever I see the words justice and liberty being self-applied to a privately funded organization.

Järlström had an opportunity to dispute the fine at a hearing, but he didn’t appear and paid the fine in full. Was he already in contact with the Institute, preparing his lawsuit? With a strong defense at his hearing, he might have avoided the fine, but then he wouldn’t have standing for his lawsuit, would he?

This backstory on Järlström’s motivations wasn’t explored by Motherboard or the Times, as they preferred to put their efforts into writing clever headlines. Motherboard’s was “Man Fined $500 for Crime of Writing ‘I Am An Engineer’ in an Email to the Government.” The Times went with “Yellow-Light Crusader Fined for Doing Math Without a License.” Funny.

Here’s the thing: the licensing of engineers who do work that affects the public is a social good (It’s not a panacea—there are no panaceas—but it does enforce a baseline of competence in those who design our factories, roads, bridges, and buildings). I suspect, though, that the Institute for Justice doesn’t believe that. To them minimum standards of competence are “barriers to entrepreneurship,” entrepreneurship—economic liberty—being the highest social good in the Institute’s eyes.

So if Järlström and the Institute win the lawsuit, will Oregon’s statutes concerning engineering licensure be slightly adjusted to permit more use of the word engineer or will they be gutted? I wouldn’t mind the former—Järlström’s casual use of the word wasn’t the same as if his business was called “Järlström Engineering”—but I worry about the latter. Unfettered entrepreneurship has never been good for public safety. (Yes, I am a licensed engineer, which means I’m dedicated to the guild and spend much of my time squelching competition through regulation and preventing others from jumping on the engineering gravy train.)


When I began reading the piece, I thought Järlström was in the right. Now I’m less sure – and agree with Drang.
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8,400 new Android malware samples every day • G DATA


G DATA security experts discovered over 750,000 new Android malware apps in the first quarter of 2017. That represents almost 8,400 new malware instances every day.

Following a new negative overall record of over 3.2 million new Android malware files in 2016, the year 2017 was off to a slower start in comparison with same quarter of the previous year. G DATA security experts counted 750,000 new malware files in the first quarter of 2017. The malware figures remained the same in the fourth quarter of 2016. The threat level for users with smartphones and tablets with an Android operating system remains high. In all, the G DATA security experts expect around 3.5 million new Android malware apps for 2017…

…A comprehensive security solution is becoming more and more important for smartphones and tablets. The security app should include a virus scanner that checks the mobile device for Trojans, viruses and other malware. Furthermore it should include surfing and phishing protection to secure users against dangerous emails and websites.


Hmm. A huge flow of Android malware, but very little evidence of infections. How many people run antivirus on their Android phone? (I’m guessing close to zero.) How many get infected? I’m guessing ditto on that. The risks are real, but tiny.

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Digital Economy Act: UK Police could soon disable phones, even if users don’t commit a crime • The Independent

Aatif Sulleyman:


UK police could soon have the power to remotely disable mobile phones, even before the user actually commits a crime.

The Digital Economy Act, which has just passed into law, contains a section stating that officers will be able to place restrictions on handsets that they believe are being used by drug dealers.

The Home Office has told The Independent that UK police haven’t gained the powers yet, as “the introduction of powers included within Acts are often staggered and further details will be developed by the next Government”.

The next Secretary of State needs to make regulations, which then have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, before officers can start targeting phones.

Police also wouldn’t be able to disable devices directly.

Instead, the Director General or Deputy Director General of the National Crime Agency, or a police officer of the rank of superintendent or above, would have to apply for a court order that would then be sent to a telecommunications provider.

The government wants to crack down on so-called “deal-lines” used by gangs to remotely deal drugs in rural areas.

According to the government, these gangs exploit children and vulnerable people as couriers, using “specific” mobile phone numbers.


Basically, targeting the setup as seen in The Wire – except this is before it’s sure a crime has occurred.
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Americans hang up on landlines as cellphone homes dominate • Associated Press

Anick Jesdanun:


Deborah Braswell, a university administrator in Alabama, is a member of a dwindling group — people with a landline phone at home.

According to a U.S. government study released Thursday, 50.8% of homes and apartments had only cellphone service in the latter half of 2016, the first time such households attained a majority in the survey. Braswell and her family are part of the 45.9% that still have landline phones. The remaining households have no phone service at all.

More than 39% of U.S. households — including Braswell’s — have both landline and cellphone service. The landline comes in handy when someone misplaces one of the seven cellphones kicking around her three-story house in a Birmingham suburb. “You walk around your house calling yourself to find it,” she says.

It’s also useful when someone breaks or loses a cellphone and has to wait for a replacement.

Renters and younger adults are more likely to have just a cellphone, which researchers attribute to their mobility and comfort with newer technologies.

The in-person survey of 19,956 households was part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, which tracks landline use in order to assure representative samples in ongoing health studies. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.


Full data here. The percentage of households only with mobiles has gone from a couple of% in spring 2003 to over 50%. (One takes it their internet is “bare cable” where the ISP doesn’t tie provision to having a landline phone contract – as is effectively obligatory in the UK.)

However the data show that poorer households are less likely to have a landline (66% v 49%); ditto for renters v homeowners (71% v 41%).
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Worldwide tablet shipments decline 8.5% in the first quarter as the slow migration from slates to detachables continues • IDC


The tablet market is comprised of two different product categories, which are headed in very different directions as noted by IDC in the past. Devices offering a first-party keyboard, which IDC refers to as detachable tablets, continue to grow for the most part. Many of these devices have quickly grown to resemble products that IDC refers to as traditional notebook PCs or laptops. The other product category is slate tablets (those lacking this keyboard option), which saw shipments peak in 2014 and is now in a steep decline that IDC believes will continue throughout the forecast period…

…Fast forward to 1Q17 and traditional PCs have returned to growth, albeit relatively flat growth, for the first time since 1Q12.

“A long-term threat to the overall PC market lies in how the market ultimately settles on the detachable versus convertible debate,” said Linn Huang, research director, Devices & Displays at IDC. “To date, detachable shipments have dwarfed those of convertibles, but growth of the former has slowed a bit. In IDC’s 2017 U.S. Consumer PCD Survey, fielded over the previous two months, detachable owners held slightly more favorable attitudes towards their detachables than convertible owners did for their convertibles. However, owners of both were far more likely to recommend a convertible over a detachable.”


“Flat growth” is a lovely phrase for “dead”. IDC doesn’t include “convertibles” in its tablet segment; they’re PCs which can be tablet-y (eg Lenovo’s Yoga). IDC says Apple, whose share is settling down to about 25% of the whole tablet segment, is top of the “detachable” market with the iPad Pro. (I love the 9.7in version – perfect weight and portability.) Samsung meanwhile is backing into the Windows PC market through the same route.

Android slates are the low-price, zero-profit (unsustainable) end; Strategy Analytics says Windows was 15% of tablet shipments, ie 6.3m units on its larger measure of 42.1m for the market. IDC puts the market at 36.2m units.
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Alex Jones will never stop being Alex Jones • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel in a wonderful writeup of the indescribably terrible Infowars host, on an early encounter in which Jones was beaten up after challenging someone to a fight:


In the end, no one pressed charges. Later, when he spoke about the incident to a local reporter, Jones first suggested he’d been the one who was attacked, and then denied the incident ever took place. In a statement to Austin Police Detective Dusty Heskew, Jones said he was unfairly “taunted” by four to five men, one of whom had “eyes that look like a goat’s…and pasty white green skin” and wielded “a double edged military type killing knife.” According to Jones, Counts was dangerously “obsessed” with him. “I am not an easy person to scare, but I believe that he bears me incredible malice,” he said at the time. “I am in fear of losing my life.”

Though that statement predates by decades the Infowars media empire Jones would later create, it now looks like an early playbook for his wildly successful libertarian- and conspiracy-news juggernaut: take a kernel of truth, warp it and its context in a funhouse mirror, and set it against a heavy backdrop of conspiracy, while raising the stakes with a generous dose of fear. The strategy has made Jones — a stocky central Texan with a penchant for clamorous outbursts, fanciful digressions, and meandering stream-of-consciousness monologues — a celebrity. It’s also made Infowars — his broad kingdom of media properties, including a website, webstore, and four-hour daily broadcast — a required part of the far right’s media diet.


In most other countries, that “take a kernel of truth, wrap it in a funhouse mirror..” clause would end with “…made him an obvious choice for treatment for mental illness”. But America is different.
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How does Alex Jones make money? • NY Mag

Seth Brown:


He established, began making and selling his own conspiracy-oriented documentary films, and then launched, a subscription-only streaming-video service that offered instant access to his films. By 2013, he had built a media empire: web, radio, subscription video, and DVD and T-shirt sales. At the time, Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald estimated that Jones was pulling in as much as $10m a year between subscriptions, web and radio advertising, and sales.

But sometime later that year, his business model changed completely. Since late 2013, Jones has been pushing a collection of dietary supplements designed to prey on the paranoias and insecurities of his listeners: Infowars Life Silver Bullet Colloidal Silver. Infowars Life Brain Force Plus. Infowars Life Super Male Vitality. Infowars Life Liver Shield. In a recent BuzzFeed profile of Jones, Charlie Warzel writes that the launch of Infowars dietary supplements “completely transformed” Infowars into a “media empire,” but this might even be underselling it — if not mischaracterizing the natures of Jones’s business.


Or as the subtitle of the article has it, “Alex Jones’s Media Empire Is a Machine Built to Sell Snake-Oil Diet Supplements”. Brown does some calculations which suggest Jones is *raking* it in – easily matching what he used to.

As ever in these things, follow the money.
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Why J. Crew’s vision of preppy America failed • New Yorker

Joshua Rothman visits a store of the clothes company which is $2bn in debt and might go bankrupt:


The most striking thing about the store was, for lack of a better term, its pervasive, all-encompassing J. Crewness. Every item—critter shorts, pocket squares, the Frankie sunglasses—represented a facet of a familiar, imagined life. The names of the products—the Ludlow and Crosby jackets for men; the Rhodes and Maddie pants and Campbell and Regent blazers for women—fixed J. Crew in a certain place and milieu. Once, this was comforting. Now it felt odd to be told by a company that I was, or wanted to be, a certain kind of person. I didn’t want to be a member of the J. Crew Crew, or any crew.

Later the same day, I logged onto Facebook. My newsfeed was, as usual, full of ads for streamlined, nondescript clothing that might be described as “normcore”: sneakers from Allbirds, T-shirts from Buck Mason, crowdfunded trousers from Taylor Stitch. A few friends, I noticed, “liked” Bonobos. The ads rejected, or claimed to reject, the whole idea of “life style.” In many cases, they showed products without models, just floating in space. The implication was that I was a self-defining, self-sufficient person. I didn’t need to aspire to some other life; I could build one myself, without entering some bubble-like subculture. In theory, these clothes said almost nothing about me. (In practice, of course, they say as much as clothes always do.) It’s this insistence upon independence that, more than anything, may have dethroned J. Crew. These days, we prefer the subtle manipulation of the algorithm to the overt glamour of the “style guide.” It’s luxurious to think that we are choosing for ourselves.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: tablets detach from growth, how cities change, what’s an engineer?, no phones home, and more

  1. An important note to me on J. Crew and other companies is that we all turn a blind eye to the primary reason that they have billions in debt: Leveraged buyouts by private equity firms change the companies from trying to generate profits to an entity that exists purely to service the debt laden on to it by the private equity firm. It’s a recurring theme over and over.

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