Start Up: hiding passwords, goodbye Roger Moore, LeEco cuts deep, DeepMind wins, ironic fascism?, and more


What if you got an AI to name paint colours? Photo by Muffet 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.

An AI invented a bunch of new paint colors that are hilariously wrong • Ars Technica

Annalee Newitz:

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At some point, we’ve all wondered about the incredibly strange names for paint colours. Research scientist and neural network goofball Janelle Shane took the wondering a step further. Shane decided to train a neural network to generate new paint colors, complete with appropriate names. The results are possibly the greatest work of artificial intelligence I’ve seen to date.

Writes Shane on her Tumblr, “For this experiment, I gave the neural network a list of about 7,700 Sherwin-Williams paint colors along with their RGB values. (RGB = red, green, and blue colour values.) Could the neural network learn to invent new paint colours and give them attractive names?”

Shane told Ars that she chose a neural network algorithm called char-rnn, which predicts the next character in a sequence. So basically the algorithm was working on two tasks: coming up with sequences of letters to form colour names, and coming up with sequences of numbers that map to an RGB value. As she checked in on the algorithm’s progress, she found that it was able to create colours long before it could actually name them reliably.

The longer it processed the dataset, the closer the algorithm got to making legit colour names, though they were still mostly surreal: “Soreer Gray” is a kind of greenish colour, and “Sane Green” is a purplish blue. When Shane cranked up “creativity” on the algorithm’s output, it gave her a violet colour called “Dondarf” and a Kelly green called “Bylfgoam Glosd.” After churning through several more iterations of this process, Shane was able to get the algorithm to recognize some basic colours like red and gray, “though not reliably,” because she also gets a sky blue called “Gray Pubic” and a dark green called “Stoomy Brown.”

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I wonder if we’ll look back on stories like these in 5-10 years’ time and think “aww, those baby steps” or if it will be more like “why is this stuff still no better than that?”

There’s a whole ton more of AI-generated titles for all sorts of things on her blog.
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Introducing Travel Mode: Protect your data when crossing borders • AgileBits Blog

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Let’s say I had an upcoming trip for a technology conference in San Jose. I hear the apples are especially delicious over there this time of year. 🙂 Before Travel Mode, I would have had to sign out of all my 1Password accounts on all my devices. If I needed certain passwords with me, I had to create a temporary travel account. It was a lot of work and not worth it for most people.

Now all I have to do is make sure any of the items I need for travel are in a single vault. I then sign in to my account on 1Password.com, mark that vault as “safe for travel,” and turn on Travel Mode in my profile. I unlock 1Password on my devices so the vaults are removed, and I’m now ready for my trip. Off I go from sunny Winnipeg to hopefully-sunnier San Jose, ready to cross the border knowing that my iPhone and my Mac no longer contain the vast majority of my sensitive information.

After I arrive at my destination, I can sign in again and turn off Travel Mode. The vaults immediately show up on my devices, and I’m back in business.

Your vaults aren’t just hidden; they’re completely removed from your devices as long as Travel Mode is on. That includes every item and all your encryption keys. There are no traces left for anyone to find. So even if you’re asked to unlock 1Password by someone at the border, there’s no way for them to tell that Travel Mode is even enabled.

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Available for those with 1Password membership ($3 per month, 12-month membership). It’s a neat idea – enhancing travellers’ security in response to emerging threats. And also profiting from it. Win-win. (Should we wait for it to be accused of being used by a terrorist, rather than an innocent computer geek?)
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The Persuaders – Main Title HD ( John Barry ) • YouTube

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The Persuaders titles and synthesiser theme, music by John Barry, establish the background and current identities of the protagonists via split-screen narrative technique: two folders, one red, one blue, labelled Danny Wilde and Brett Sinclair simultaneously narrate their lives. As the biographies approach their current ages, the screen splits diagonally, connoting their excitingly peripatetic lifestyles. The conclusion shows them together enjoying a life of sport, drink, women, and gambling. The titles were specifically designed so that neither actor would appear to have top billing, something both [Roger] Moore and [Tony] Curtis stipulated when they agreed to co-star.

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Roger Moore – who died on Tuesday – starred in many series (The Saint, etc) and was of course James Bond; but The Persuaders was the series that allowed him to be seriously ridiculous. The plots were wonderfully overwrought; a low-budget Bond every week. But oh, that theme music. Unbeatable – and it fed into the themes of many bands and TV series (the first Portishead album, among others).
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LeEco cuts 70% of US staff in massive retreat • CNET

Roger Cheng:

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LeEco had unveiled a smart mountain and road bike at the [Consumer Electronics Show] conference [in January], complete with a 4in touchscreen, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and laser beams (yep, lasers) that shot out of the handlebars. It, of course, ran on Android. Bowman, who regularly biked with his colleagues near LeEco’s office in San Jose, California, was more than game. He rode the mountain bike version, while I jumped on the road bike version.

It wasn’t even close. Bowman smoked me.

Over the next few months, however, the victories would be harder to come by at LeEco. On Tuesday, the company said it was cutting 325 employees, or 70% of the workforce of its US business, due to a lack of funding. Bowman is among the employees leaving, and those smart bikes will never hit the market.

The news, which comes just days after Jia Yueting stepped down as the CEO of the publicly listed sister company Leshi, marks a nail in the coffin of the company’s ambition to be the next major US consumer electronics player on par with an Apple or Samsung. LeEco’s sudden rise and equally quick fall is a testament to the difficulty of appealing to fickle US consumers. It’s also a reminder that grand promises to consumers about changing the way they view entertainment means little if they have no idea who you are.

“They showed a lot of ambition without thinking through how to build a sustainable structure and foundation,” said Chris Dong, an analyst at IDC.

LeEco will continue to operate in the US but will focus on the narrower segment of Chinese-speaking households, according to a company spokeswoman.

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The other shoe drops. Surprised it’s only 70% – some thought it was going to be a complete wipeout of staff.
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About • Lolatravel

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We’re a new kind of travel company that provides on-demand, personal travel service through a smartphone app. The Lola app instantly connects people to our team of travel agents who find and book flights, hotels, and cars for our customers. We also provide support while they’re on their trips.

The name Lola is shorthand for longitude and latitude, a system created to make seaborne navigation easier, and in that same spirit, we started Lola to give more people access to a premium level of travel care.

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Human travel agents? Weren’t they supposed to be out of work now? Turns out: no. My daughter has been trying to book travel abroad, and our local travel agent has done far better at finding affordable travel and accommodation. Neat idea; an app for iOS only, for now. (Via Tim O’Reilly’s talk in Cambridge on Tuesday.)
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Introducing the H. Moser Swiss Alp watch Zzzz • Hodinkee

Stephen Pulvirent:

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The Zzzz has a white gold case in that familiar soft-rectangle shape and with those familiar wire lugs that give the Swiss Alp Watch its character. But, below the curved crystal sits a deep glossy black dial with no signatures at all and just a simple pair of white gold leaf hands floating over the top. You could, from even a relatively close distance, mistake this for an Apple Watch if you weren’t paying close attention.

To me, it’s the most successful play on the idea of the Swiss Alp Watch yet, being both a little subversive and a little playful, all while still being a quality mechanical watch.

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It looks exactly like an Apple Watch. So Jony Ive is the designer not just for Samsung but for the Swiss watch industry too?
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DeepMind’s AI beats world’s best Go player in latest face-off • New Scientist

Matt Reynolds:

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Google DeepMind’s Go-playing AI has defeated Ke Jie, the world’s number one player, in the first of three games played in Wuzhen, China.

The AI won by just half a point – the smallest possible margin of victory – in a match that lasted four hours and fifteen minutes. Though the scoreline looks close, AlphaGo was in the lead from relatively early on in the game. Since the AI favours moves that are more likely to guarantee victory, it doesn’t usually trounce its opponents.

In March last year, AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top Go players, winning four out of five matches. The AI challenged more Go masters in January 2017, winning a series of 50 online games including two victories against Ke Jie.

In a press conference after the AI’s latest victory, Ke said that AlphaGo had clearly learned from its recent victories against Go champions. “In the past it had some weaknesses but now I feel that its understanding of the Go game and its judgments are beyond our ability,” he told the audience through a translator.

Ke had closely studied AlphaGo’s strategy and tried to use some of the AI’s unconventional tactics against it during his match, opening the game with a couple of moves that are seldom used by human players. “We were very intrigued to see how AlphaGo would deal with its own strategies,” said Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind.

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I thought Lee Sedol was the top player, but whatever.
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Hackers unlock Samsung Galaxy S8 with fake iris • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

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Biometric locks for phones are just getting more and more elaborate. Not content with fingerprints, some devices now offer facial recognition tech for accessing a device, and in the Samsung Galaxy S8’s case, an iris scanner too.

Despite Samsung stating that a user’s irises are pretty much impossible to copy, a team of hackers has done just that. Using a bare-bones selection of equipment, researchers from the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) show in a video how they managed to bypass the scanner’s protections and unlock the device.

“We’ve had iris scanners that could be bypassed using a simple print-out,” Linus Neumann, one of the hackers who appears in the video, told Motherboard in a Twitter direct message.

The process itself was apparently pretty simple. The hackers took a medium range photo of their subject with a digital camera’s night mode, and printed the infrared image. Then, presumably to give the image some depth, the hackers placed a contact lens on top of the printed picture.

And, that’s it. They’re in.

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This is where Minority Report comes in.
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Hiding in plain sight: how the ‘alt-right’ is weaponizing irony to spread fascism • The Guardian

Jason Wilson:

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Last week, the Data & Society Institute released a report on the online disinformation and manipulation that is increasingly shaping US politics. The report focused on the way in which far-right actors “spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture”.

One the report’s authors, Dr Alice Marwick, says that fascist tropes first merged with irony in the murkier corners of the internet before being adopted by the “alt-right” as a tool. For the new far-right movement, “irony has a strategic function. It allows people to disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.”

Marwick says that from the early 2000s, on message boards like 4chan, calculatedly offensive language and imagery have been used to “provoke strong reactions in outsiders”. Calling all users “fags”, or creating memes using gross racial stereotypes, “serves a gate-keeping function, in that it keeps people out of these spaces, many of which are very easy to access”.

Violating the standards of political correctness and the rules of polite interactions “also functions as an act of rebellion” in spaces drenched in adolescent masculinity.

This was played up by Milo Yiannopoulos in an infamous Breitbart explainer last year, in which he insisted that the “alt-right” movement’s circulation of antisemitic imagery was really nothing more than transgressive fun.

“Are they actually bigots?”, Yiannopoulos asked rhetorically. “No more than death metal devotees in the 1980s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.”

What Yiannopoulos left out, according to Marwick, is that these spaces increasingly became attractive to sincere white supremacists. They offered them venues for recruitment, and new methods for popularising their ideas.

In other words, troll culture became a way for fascism to hide in plain sight.

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Another reason to really dislike trolling.
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Netgear ‘fixes’ router by adding phone-home features that record your IP and MAC address • The Register

Richard Chirgin:

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Netgear NightHawk R7000 users who ran last week’s firmware upgrade need to check their settings, because the company added a remote data collection feature to the units.

A sharp-eyed user posted the T&Cs change to Slashdot.

Netgear lumps the slurp as routine diagnostic data.

“Such data may include information regarding the router’s running status, number of devices connected to the router, types of connections, LAN/WAN status, WiFi bands and channels, IP address, MAC address, serial number, and similar technical data about the use and functioning of the router, as well as its WiFi network.”

Much of this is probably benign, but posters to the Slashdot thread were concerned about IP address and MAC address being collected by the company.

The good news is that you can turn it off: the instructions are here.

It’s probably unlikely that any significant number of users will do so, given the number of people who never get around to changing their default passwords.

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It is amazing how many companies just assume we don’t mind them grabbing all the data they possibly can.
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Donald Trump’s path-independent theory of mind • Bloomberg

Cathy O’Neil:

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When Google is trying some new shade of blue in the background of their ads, they will perform what’s called an “A/B test” to see what generates more clicks. If more people go for the ad with a lighter shade of blue, they will stick with it. What they won’t do, critically, is consider the possibility that their audience liked the light shade of blue only because it came after the darker shade. They will assume that the audiences are independent of each other, constantly refreshed and “new.”

The same approach might have worked well for Trump as a businessman. He probably would have encountered a wide range of scenarios: For every deal that went through, dozens might have failed. So trying X one day and Y the next would be like a real science experiment. Over time, he might develop pattern recognition, figuring out which tactic works best in certain kinds of situations. I assume that’s where he learned to put pressure on business partners for unreasonable terms and to demand oaths of loyalty from his employees…

…I’d argue that Trump’s path independence operates on multiple levels. It’s evident at a meta-political level when he takes a stab at sweeping campaign promises that he never intends to fulfill. It’s also visible at the micro level, even within a given sentence: in his very strange recent interview with The Economist, for example, he kept attempting to adjust his message to obtain approval from his interviewers. He keeps things vague, and then pokes his way into a given explanation, but leaves himself room to change direction in case he senses disapproval.

It doesn’t always work for him. That said, he probably can’t act any other way. Consistency has no attraction for him, because he is fundamentally principle-free.

Trump’s problem now is that the audience isn’t refreshing. It’s all of us, nationwide and globally. We remember what he said and did yesterday. We notice when he changes his story, and we’re not amused. Meanwhile, he’s left truly confused as to why things aren’t working out in his favour.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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