Start Up: evading YouTube censors, Switch blooms, Breitbart dwindles, Google delays, and more


Now you can be hacked via subtitles. Yes, really. Photo by froussecarton on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. May contain traces of anonymous sources. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How terrorists slip beheading videos past YouTube’s censors • Motherboard

Rita Katz:

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as I’ve stated before, terrorist propaganda comprises a lot more than the gory execution videos which detection technologies may seek to find. And, just as troublingly, terrorist groups have repeatedly found ways to bypass unwanted attention from non-supporting users and administrators.

For instance, in order to prevent users from flagging explicit or inflammatory extremist videos, terrorist media groups and disseminators like The Upload Knights and AQ’s As-Sahab Media Foundation often label YouTube videos as “unlisted,” meaning that the videos cannot be searched—only accessed if you are given the link. This feature works well to keep a video somewhat contained to supporters and prospects. They are also just as easy as any other link to find on the messaging service Telegram, though, after which they can be further disseminated on social media.

IS video (left) and AQAP video (right) uploaded to YouTube and marked as unlisted. Image: SITE

Terrorist groups also upload videos that are not the actual videos they are advertised to be. Instead, audio plays over a still image with a message at the bottom directing users to alternative links provided in the description section. Take an April 26 video from IS’ Ninawa Province for example: the image in the video reads, “The link is in the video description,” where another YouTube link is provided.

In the comments section of this YouTube upload, which was eventually removed, were several more links, making the YouTube page look a lot like a password-protected jihadi forum or private Telegram chat group.

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Google has a really big problem on its hands, which mean we all have a big problem. And as Katz points out, it’s not just about Muslim extremists.
link to this extract


A Time to Kill iTunes • 500ish Words

MG Siegler on the news that Apple is going to make iTunes available for the Windows Store to run on Windows 10S:

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at this point, it’s old hat to rag on iTunes. It has been so bad, for so long, that the joke is stale. And yet, somehow Apple doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. Because if they were, surely iTunes would no longer exist.

Yeah, yeah, I know such software has to exist for a huge number of users. Mainly those who still want to sync their music (and/or files) from their computer hard drives without using the cloud. It is 2017. And yet this is still a thing. And it is a thing for many people.

But there’s no reason that such software has to be iTunes. Apple could easily make a more svelte piece of software that handles the syncing tasks. And they should. Because iTunes is a bloated piece of junk.

Most of the time when I listen to music these days, I do it through my iPhone. This is true even if I happen to be using my computer. It’s just so much easier and better to play music through my device than through my desktop. Earlier this week, I found myself loading iTunes for the first time in a while to try to listen through my MacBook and it was a comedy of errors.

Pop-up alerts galore. Sign in screens. TOS updates. Then came the automatic downloads. iTunes decided I might want to download all six seasons of Lost in HD right then and there. And a bunch of other old shows. Like a terabyte of data. Even more beachballs.

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This isn’t my experience; and iTunes is only doing what he told it to do with the downloads. The real argument about iTunes is whether it should be a single program, or many. If it were many, you’d have to sign into each one, and you’d hate it. Instead you have a single one, and it can be unwieldy. That’s why it has a search field..
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While Android leaps forward, Samsung’s software still has trouble catching up to its hardware • XDA Developers

Daniel Marchena:

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While everyone’s baseline for what is acceptable is different, it is hard to deny that bloated options like the Samsung Experience have a detrimental effect on device performance. I am jealous every time I watch a video showing off the HTC U11 or Google Pixel; they are just so instantaneously responsive, something my S8 cannot match even on its best days.

It’s not just the amount of added applications and services, it is also the optimization of them that matters. On your Galaxy S8 right now, there are dozens of services running that simply do not need to be there for most users, that are taking up valuable system resources, and even if the impact of them is low it is still something running that simply does not perceptibly or substantially add to our experience. These running services take up your available RAM, but more importantly are using valuable CPU time and attention. Have you ever used the the Samsung DeX system? Well, its software is running on your S8. Ever used Samsung’s woefully broken and useless “Connect” or “Bixby” services? Well, those services are running right now on your S8. Even if you have never applied a theme to your phone, there are at least two themes services that are running that have no need to be, because if disabled, your phone works exactly as it did prior to disabling them; I know, I have them disabled. If you have ever used GearVR, the Oculus suite is installed and stays running at all times, even if you haven’t used your headset in days or weeks or since a reboot. Normally most users won’t even notice one or two of these services running in the background, but when those services add up to dozens of unneeded running tasks, it quickly becomes a problem. 

Samsung’s insistence on adding a growing amount of limited use and poorly-optimized software adds little more than a bullet point during an announcement and some usefulness to a small subset of users. Inversely, its negative impact affects all users of the device even if they never use the services or even know it exists. There is a reason why one of the most common comments in Galaxy S8 reviews was the skepticism over if the device will remain responsive, because the Galaxy S6 and S7 have not aged as gracefully as their less-bloated brothers from other manufacturers, and it’s not because the S7’s Snapdragon 820 magically got slower over time.

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link to this extract


Nintendo ramping up Switch production • Financial Times

Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki:

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People involved in Nintendo’s hardware supply chain say the Kyoto-based games maker is now targeting Switch hardware production of 18m units for the 12 months ending March 2018.

According to people close to the company, the production increase reflects fears of “customer tantrums” as Nintendo prepares to release its flagship Mario Odyssey game in November.

Nintendo denied that it had plans to boost production to that level, sticking to its official hardware shipment target of 10m for the console that was launched in March. But analysts have assumed for months that the company would substantially exceed that number.

Some, such as Hirotoshi Murakami at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley, believe that Nintendo is being intentionally conservative in its guidance and predicts that it will produce as many as 20m consoles by the end of the financial year.

But the company may be constrained in its effort to ramp up production by the availability of key components such as liquid crystal display screens.

The difficulty of obtaining a Switch in Japan has created a side market based on the way that some retailers offer free guaranteed bookings of product delivery on a specific date. People who have managed to secure those guarantees have found they can sell the consoles online to desperate gamers: the market price for a guaranteed Switch delivery in July, for example, has been pushed to about ¥14,000 ($126).

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The Switch won’t be as big as the Wii (100m units lifetime) because of two differences: it doesn’t appeal to non-gamers as the Wii did, and everyone has smartphones now. But it is doing very good business for a games console.
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As Trump’s problems mount, Breitbart’s numbers are cratering • Vanity Fair

Tina Nguyen:

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Measuring web traffic is an inexact act, but other web-analytics companies reflect a similar, unusually steep decline in Breitbart’s traffic. ComScore estimated that Breitbart had nearly 23 million unique visitors during the month of November 2016, but only drew 10.7 million in April 2017, a 53% drop. Last month, the site had fewer visitors than it did in April 2016, when 12.3 million people visited the site. In contrast, the four sites that Breitbart benchmarked itself against saw nowhere near that drop—and, in the case of both Fox News and Buzzfeed, saw small increases in traffic since the November election…

…Other conservative media sites have also experienced declines in traffic in recent months, but none as pronounced as Breitbart’s. According to Alexa data, National Review Online, Infowars.com, The Daily Caller, and Drudge Report all saw slumps in their rankings. Over the last week, as Trump was engulfed in the Comey scandal, Fox News’s viewership dropped to third place behind CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 17 years.

At the most basic level, Trump’s struggles are producing a passion gap among news consumers. “If you’re anti-Trump, there’s never been a better time to read news. It’s like Christmas every morning,” an editor at another conservative media outlet told me. “So every time you open the newspaper or open Twitter or turn on Facebook, you get to enjoy the fact that there are a lot of other people who don’t like Trump and there’s a lot of news stories that show Trump in a negative light. Whereas if you’re Breitbart, you’re scrambling to explain or defend or continue to back the guy that you backed throughout the election. And eventually, if your posture continues to just simply be reactive and trying to explain away things that are happening to or by the president, I think people slowly become sort of disheartened by politics.”

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The two theories pinging around social media: this one; or that it was all just bots 🙄. In the absence of conflict, Breitbart is just what it always was: a repository of the absurd which is easily contradicted and put into perspective by stepping outside the door.
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Hacked in Translation: from subtitles to complete takeover • Check Point Blog

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Our research reveals a new possible attack vector, using a completely overlooked technique in which the cyberattack is delivered when movie subtitles are loaded by the user’s media player. These subtitles repositories are, in practice, treated as a trusted source by the user or media player; our research also reveals that those repositories can be manipulated and be made to award the attacker’s malicious subtitles a high score, which results in those specific subtitles being served to the user. This method requires little or no deliberate action on the part of the user, making it all the more dangerous.

Unlike traditional attack vectors, which security firms and users are widely aware of, movie subtitles are perceived as nothing more than benign text files. This means users, Anti-Virus software, and other security solutions vet them without trying to assess their real nature, leaving millions of users exposed to this risk.

The attack vector relies heavily on the poor state of security in the way various media players process subtitle files and the large number of subtitle formats. To begin with, there are over 25 subtitle formats in use, each with unique features and capabilities. Media players often need to parse together multiple subtitle formats to ensure coverage and provide a better user experience, with each media player using a different method. Like other, similar situations which involve fragmented software, this results in numerous distinct vulnerabilities… To date, we tested and found vulnerabilities in four of the most prominent media players: VLC, Kodi, Popcorn Time and Stremio

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Check Point puts the number potentially at risk in the “hundreds of millions”. There’s a video too:

A long time ago, the then video producer for Nine Inch Nails showed me how he had written a firmware hack so that playing a DVD video single (that’s how long ago it was) would load a program that would take over your DVD. But he never distributed it, because the record company pointed out they could all be done for hacking. Nowadays, of course, you download your own destruction.
link to this extract


Accused of underpaying women, Google says it’s too expensive to get wage data • The Guardian

Sam Levin:

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Google argued that it was too financially burdensome and logistically challenging to compile and hand over salary records that the government has requested, sparking a strong rebuke from the US Department of Labor (DoL), which has accused the Silicon Valley firm of underpaying women.

Google officials testified in federal court on Friday that it would have to spend up to 500 hours of work and $100,000 to comply with investigators’ ongoing demands for wage data that the DoL believes will help explain why the technology corporation appears to be systematically discriminating against women.

Noting Google’s nearly $28bn annual income as one of the most profitable companies in the US, DoL attorney Ian Eliasoph scoffed at the company’s defense, saying, “Google would be able to absorb the cost as easy as a dry kitchen sponge could absorb a single drop of water.”

The tense exchanges in a small San Francisco courtroom emerged in the final day of testimony in the most high-profile government trial to date surrounding the intensifying debate about the wage gap and gender discrimination in the tech industry.

The DoL first publicly accused Google of “systemic compensation disparities” during a hearing in April, saying a preliminary inquiry had found that the Mountain View tech firm underpays women across positions.

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Amazing that Google is still taking this approach, especially in view of this:

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In one revealing exchange, Frank Wagner, the company’s director of compensation, admitted in court that if women are paid less than men in the same positions, those salary disparities can persist even if the employees perform at the same level.

Asked about a hypothetical, Wagner explained that if a female employee starts at a lower salary than a male colleague in the same job at Google, she may continue to make less even if they both excel in their first year and score the same on evaluations.

Wagner claimed that eventually, their wages would likely be adjusted to match each other: “There would be convergence over time.”

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Is that in the same way the sun will absorb the Earth “over time”? The longer this goes on, the more Google looks like it’s covering up. The principle is weak here.
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Qualcomm says BlackBerry award doesn’t affect legal battle with Apple • The Motley Fool

Evan Niu on the news that Qualcomm is paying $815m, plus some legal fees (which could be substantial) to BlackBerry:

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The arbitration decision would seem to imply that there are situations where Qualcomm has been overcharging for royalties, as the decision sided with BlackBerry and the Canadian company will now receive a refund for those overpayments. That could suggest that Apple [which is suing Qualcomm over standard essential patent fees] has more of a case, if another licensee has won its own fight over royalty overpayments. However, Qualcomm reminded investors that these two cases are not related.

In its statement, Qualcomm noted: “The arbitration decision was limited to prepayment provisions unique to BlackBerry’s license agreement with Qualcomm and has no impact on agreements with any other licensee.” Qualcomm likely anticipated that there could be a tendency to connect BlackBerry’s win to Apple’s current lawsuits. The mobile chip giant said that the BlackBerry case revolved around a single issue on whether Qualcomm’s voluntary per-unit royalty cap applied to BlackBerry’s non-refundable royalty prepayments for subscriber units between 2010 and 2015.

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If I’m reading this correctly, BlackBerry had to pay upfront back in 2010 for the number of devices it thought it was going to sell. It sold far fewer than it expected (hello BlackBerry collapse!), and so it argued that Qualcomm owed it a rebate.

This is, as Qualcomm says, an entirely different matter from whether it has been charging Apple and its suppliers too much for the licences on its standards-essential patents (SEPs). Though I wouldn’t take it as a great sign if I were Qualcomm.
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A year of Google Maps & Apple Maps • Justin O’Beirne

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Shortly after I published my Cartography Comparison last June, I noticed Google updating some of the areas we had focused on:

Coincidence or not, it was interesting. And it made me wonder what else would change, if we kept watching. Would Google keep adding detail? And would Apple, like Google, also start making changes?

So I wrote a script that takes monthly screenshots of Google and Apple Maps [default maps only, no personalisation]. And 13 months later, we now have a year’s worth of images:

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The inference seems to be that Google is adding places and altering its icons, so that it looks increasingly like Apple’s – except it has more detail about places. If you like design, you’ll like this analysis.
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The atomic bomb considered as Hungarian high school science fair project • Slate Star Codex

Scott Alexander:

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A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much.

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This is an amazing post, which will lead you through teaching, the Manhattan Project, genetic disease, ghettos, to an amazing conclusion, and then a coda that will leave you slightly aghast. You can find backing for his conclusion in the location of much of the startup energy in the west outside America; his coda isn’t necessarily the end.

Other material to read: Steven Pinker on a similar topic; Adam Rutherford giving his opinion on this piece (an example of Twitter at its best).
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Sony to discontinue ‘Premium Standard’ smartphones; don’t expect a successor to Xperia X and X Compact • Xperia Blog

“XB”:

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Sony Mobile has confirmed plans to drop the ‘Premium Standard’ segment from its future smartphone portfolio. Devices launched under this tier included the Xperia X and Xperia X Compact in 2016 – they were designed to offer a reasonable price point with an almost flagship specification.

When details of these phones were announced, many of you bemoaned the fact that these weren’t flagship devices, and it looks like this apathy translated into lacklustre sales. Whilst in Japan, these models hit 85% of its intended volume targets for the year, outside of Japan this number fell to a paltry 31%. It’s fair to say that volumes fell spectacularly short of targets – the lack of resonance outside Japan led to the company only hitting 43% of its targets in this segment globally.

Sony confirmed the news at its 2017 Investor Day, along with the fact that it will now only focus on flagship and mid-range models going forward.

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Yes, but look at the slide from the investor day:

Basically, anything outside Japan was a bust. As the slide shows, Sony sold 14.6m units in the whole financial year, when it was hoping for 20m. Compared to Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and even LG, It’s a sideshow – albeit the only Android OEM besides Samsung which is demonstrably profitable. (We just don’t know about Huawei, Oppo or Vivo.)
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The world is running out of sand • New Yorker

David Owen (not the political one) with an amazing excursion through the difficulty of getting the right sort of sand for all sorts of applications:

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One engineer I spoke to told me that transporting sand and stone for ordinary construction becomes uneconomical after about 60 miles, and that builders usually make do with whatever is available within that radius, even if it means settling for materials that aren’t ideal. In some places, though, there are no usable alternatives. Florida lies on top of a vast limestone formation, but most of the stone is too soft to be used in construction. “The whole Gulf Coast is starved for aggregate,” William Langer, the research geologist, told me. “So they import limestone from Mexico, from a quarry in the Yucatán, and haul it by freighter across the Caribbean.” Even that stone is wrong for some uses. “You can build most of a road with limestone from Mexico,” he continued, “but it doesn’t have much skid resistance. So to get that they have to use granitic rock, which they ship down the East Coast from quarries in Nova Scotia or haul by train from places like inland Georgia.” When Denver International Airport was being built, in the nineteen-nineties, local quarries were unable to supply crushed stone as rapidly as it was needed, so vast quantities were brought from a quarry in Wyoming whose principal product was stone ballast for railroad tracks. The crushed stone was delivered by a freight train that ran in a continuous loop between the quarry and the work site.

Deposits of sand, gravel, and stone can be found all over the United States, but many of them are untouchable, because they’re covered by houses, shopping malls, or protected land. Regulatory approval for new quarries is more and more difficult to obtain: people don’t want to live near big, noisy holes, even if their lives are effectively fabricated from the products of those holes. The scarcity of alternatives makes existing quarries increasingly valuable. The Connecticut quarry I visited is one of a number owned by Stanley’s company, and like many in the United States it’s in operation today only because it predates current mining regulations.

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This is an amazing piece. Beach volleyball sand? Specialised. Desert sand? No use to anyone (grains too round). And plenty more.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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