Start Up: Citymapper gets bussy, the vanishing tablet, how French defeated the alt-right, and more


What if playing games becomes a substitute for having a job? Photo by ouvyt on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. So it goes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Even Apple can’t make the Internet of Things tolerable • The Verge

The person behind the @internetofshit Twitter account:

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The companies behind our devices, both big and small, must make hardware changes to be accepted into HomeKit, must add authentication chips that are only available from Apple, must choose an Apple-approved manufacturer, must send free samples for certification, and must not talk about the certification while hoping they don’t go bankrupt while waiting for the entire process to complete.

Here’s an example of the frustration HomeKit creates: I bought Philips Hue lights a few years ago, and had been happily using them via the app provided by Philips. But if I wanted to get them working with HomeKit and the Home app I’d need to go out and buy an upgraded $59.99 bridge with Apple’s special chip just to get them talking — a change that could normally be done via a software upgrade. The same goes for other existing devices. If it didn’t ship with HomeKit support, you’ll have to replace it at your own cost to get it working later on. With Google Home, all I had to do was pair my existing Hue bridge and it worked immediately with my voice — no weird naming or specific phrases like “Siri, turn off Office Lights 2” required.

I must concede that this rigor is a net positive: Apple’s approved HomeKit devices are presumably the least likely to suffer from IoT plagues like the Mirai botnet that famously took down millions of connected cameras. For many IoT manufacturers and their customers, the last thing they’re thinking about is security, as we’ve all seen. What frustrates me is that HomeKit ignores all previous work done to standardize the Internet of Things, leaving thousands of useful products incompatible.

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link to this extract


Don’t let Facebook make you miserable • The New York Times

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:

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Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

Sometimes the contrasts in different data sources are amusing. Consider how wives speak about their husbands.

On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

While spending five years staring at a computer screen learning about some of human beings’ strangest and darkest thoughts may not strike most people as a good time, I have found the honest data surprisingly comforting. I have consistently felt less alone in my insecurities, anxieties, struggles and desires.

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link to this extract


Tablet ownership rates falling • GlobalWebIndex

Felim McGrath:

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Back in 2014, it was almost half of digital consumers who said they personally owned a tablet. Fast forward to 2016 and those figures have dropped to 42%. Across the same period, we have seen usage of tablets drop across a range of metrics, giving a strong indication that many users are reaching for their devices less frequently and are choosing not to upgrade/replace them.

One obvious reason why tablets have struggled to convince their owners that they are essential devices is the rise of smartphones, which continue to offer ever more complex functionalities and, crucially, larger and larger screens. Indeed, over the same period that we have seen tablet ownership decline, smartphones have seen clear growth.

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This is quite something. It’s incredibly broad – just a single top-line number – but that’s a notable shift. When ownership rates fall, it indicates substitution.
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Harman Kardon’s Cortana speaker revealed • Thurrott.com

Paul Thurrott:

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The premium speaker has a cylindrical design and does look similar to an Amazon Echo. At the top of the device is the familiar light ring that looks like Cortana. The speaker offers 360 degree sound, the ability to make and receive calls with Skype, and all of the other features currently available with Cortana.

As expected, this device is going to ship with the release of Redstone 3 which will arrive this fall.

I’m not quite sure how long this page has been online but considering that Microsoft will talk more about Cortana next week at Build and it is expected that they will make the Cortana Skills Kit available to everyone, we may get an early look at this new hardware. With that being said, hopefully we will see other vendors jump into the Cortana boat and release speakers as well.

Based one the images on the pre-release page, it looks like the device will come in silver and black.

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Will only be in the US, work with Windows/Android/iOS. So would you choose this, or an Amazon Echo, or a Google Home? What’s the point in a Microsoft one? It’s even less applicable than the others.
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Introducing the Citymapper Smartbus • Medium

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First we built an app to help you get around town, using open data. But we found the data needed fixing, so we built tools to do so. We also built tools to analyse the data and learned a lot about how people are moving around. When we studied the existing public transit routes, we realised that they don’t always serve people best, nor evolve quickly enough to accommodate changes in the city.


Simcity: Route Creation

We built an ultimate tool (codenamed: Simcity) to evaluate routes utilising our demand data and routing. We found we can figure out how to improve existing routes in all of our cities. We can also identify new and better routes. London is actually not that badly served, but other cities have major gaps. We will write in more detail about Simcity later.


Simcity: Route Evaluation

We also feel buses haven’t evolved enough. They still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology. If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones we can have responsive buses that react to realtime needs.

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This is a smart idea – and it’s working with Transport For London, which offers open data.
link to this extract


The meaning of life in a world without work • The Guardian

Yuval Noah Harari:

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You don’t need to go all the way to Israel to see the world of post-work. If you have at home a teenage son who likes computer games, you can conduct your own experiment. Provide him with a minimum subsidy of Coke and pizza, and then remove all demands for work and all parental supervision. The likely outcome is that he will remain in his room for days, glued to the screen. He won’t do any homework or housework, will skip school, skip meals and even skip showers and sleep. Yet he is unlikely to suffer from boredom or a sense of purposelessness. At least not in the short term.

Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep plays will engage us in 2050.

In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.

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That “at least in the short term” in the first paragraph might make you pause. But as he points out, there are people – well, men – in sects in Israel who don’t do anything but essentially play in virtual worlds (religions) all day.
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A complete timeline of how Trump supporters tried — and failed — to hijack the French election • Buzzfeed

Ryan Broderick:

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After the successes of both the UK’s Brexit referendum and President Trump’s campaign, many in the far-right corners of social media — on sites like 4chan and Reddit — expected and tried to help orchestrate a big win in France.

…The main lesson here is once France’s mainstream media decided to ignore the trolls, nothing they did managed to actually make it out, ironically, of the far-right filter bubble…

…Users suggested spreading a rumor that Macron was having an affair with his wife’s daughter. They hunted Google for images of Macron standing too close to his 30-year-old step-daughter, Tiphaine Auzière. Several French users did try to point out that probably none of this would work because historically French voters have cared very little about the personal lives of their presidents…

This kind of weaponized fake news didn’t really have much traction in France, for three main reasons:

First is that it doesn’t appear that anyone on 4chan actually bothered to translate the fake news into French. Second is that the purveyors thought fake news tricks that worked in the US would work in France — not taking cultural differences into account. And third, the French simply don’t use Facebook — the engine that drives fake news in the US and in other parts of the world — that much.

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That’s very reassuring. Though what’s it going to be like in four years’ time?

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Parrot is creating a new ‘prosumer’ drone division after cutting a third of its workforce • Recode

April Glaser:

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French drone maker Parrot is starting a new division to bridge the gap between its extremely expensive commercial line, which cost upward of $11,000, and its extremely inexpensive consumer drones, which can cost as little as $100.

The new division, dubbed Parrot Professional, is now making drones that fall into the “prosumer” category, the $1,000-$5,000 price range. Drones in this new division are intended to support construction and agriculture with a new work tool without the need for a professional pilot.

Earlier this year, Parrot announced it was laying off nearly 300 employees, about a third of its entire drone operation, and reorganizing the company to focus more on aircraft for commercial applications.

Poor performance in the fourth quarter of 2016 caused the company to miss its sales estimates by 15%, and Parrot projected that sales in its consumer drone business were unlikely to improve enough to generate “profitable growth … over the medium and long term.”

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“Prosumer” is a terrible word, and products made with that idea in mind usually fail to find a market. There is though a market for midrange drones. The problem is that China’s DJI, with 50% of the non-cheap market, is already there.
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Candid, comedic and macabre YouTube stars feel an advertising pinch • The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari:

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[Tim] Wood, 39, has amassed a small but loyal following by making online videos of ghost hunts and paranormal activity, using YouTube to broadcast his work since about 2013. Automatically placed advertisements on his channel, LiveScifi, which has about 470,000 subscribers, have allowed him to turn the videos into a full-time job.

But in the wake of a recent advertiser exodus from YouTube, prompted by major brands discovering they were showing up on videos promoting hate speech and terrorism, his earnings have plunged.

Mr. Wood, who lives in San Francisco with his fiancée and their infant, said his channel had brought in at least $6,000 a month in revenue last year — which helped pay for travel to site locations, the production of his videos and his other day-to-day bills. In January, his estimated revenue was about $3,900.

In February and March, he was alarmed to see that drop below $3,000. Last month, he saw around $1,600 and has been using crowdfunding to cover his shooting costs.

“We’ve never had problems with being told we’re not advertiser-friendly,” said Mr. Wood, who said he did not use profanity or offensive material in his videos. He suspects that algorithms scanning for words like “satanic” or “murder” may be limiting ads from running with his content, but can’t be sure as discussions with YouTube product managers have yielded little information.

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YouTube seems to be great at the “little information” game. Its revenues (and more importantly profits) are never broken out in Google results. So they’re either coining it, or struggling to make it profitable (due to the costs of streaming and, to a lesser extent, hardware). Perhaps with Facebook chasing video advertising, it has to protect its (near?) profitability as carefully as possible.

Note too:

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Hank Green, who is best known for the VlogBrothers channel he runs with his brother, the author John Green, said, “This is the first substantial volatility I’ve seen in about 10 years of having my content monetized by YouTube.”

He said it was difficult to assess how many people were affected, noting, “It’s a big, complicated space with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people making substantial amounts of money.” But he said the disruption was extra tough on niche creators.

“We look at our bottom line, and if we lose 30% of our YouTube revenue, we might say yes to some brand deals we would have otherwise said no to in order to not lay anybody off,” he said of his channels. “But if somebody’s making an extra $1,000 a month and that’s helping them pay the grocery bills, those people might not have access to that.”

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link to this extract


This dystopia is completely ridiculous • TechCrunch

Jon Evans, with quite the rant:

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Inside our bubble, modern medical research is doing amazing things; outside our bubble, modern medical policy is disappearing into a horrific maw of venal cruelty. In the same week, scientists announced they can cure HIV in mice, courtesy of CRISPR — and the wealthiest nation in the world, again apparently trying to recapitulate the 19th century, stripped healthcare from 24 million of its poorest citizens in favor of tax cuts for its wealthiest residents.

Inside our bubble, ordinary ponds are apparently now “organic pools.”

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Inside our bubble, smug executives, professors, and venture capitalists argue against a universal basic income, claiming it will rob people of the “fundamental dignity of work” — while people who actually work jobs which are worse than those of executives, professors, and venture capitalists, like, say, building an iPhone, are mostly too tired, too beaten down, and insufficiently famous to call them on their bullshit. Why, it sounds … like the early days of the labor movement. When was that again? Oh yes.

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It seems like we need an updated version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. (Dave Eggers’s The Circle is close, but it doesn’t get outside the, well, circle.)
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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