Start Up: Petya and survivor bias, the FireWire tragedy, the White House’s war on science, and more


Sexism comes in many forms. Silicon Valley is beginning to realise how pervasive its own is. Photo of the original artwork by Devlin Thompson on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Women in tech speak frankly on culture of harassment • The New York Times

Katie Benner:

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Their stories came out slowly, even hesitantly, at first. Then in a rush.

One female entrepreneur recounted how she had been propositioned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist while seeking a job with him, which she did not land after rebuffing him. Another showed the increasingly suggestive messages she had received from a start-up investor. And one chief executive described how she had faced numerous sexist comments from an investor while raising money for her online community website.

What happened afterward was often just as disturbing, the women told The New York Times. Many times, the investors’ firms and colleagues ignored or played down what had happened when the situations were brought to their attention. Saying anything, the women were warned, might lead to ostracism.

Now some of these female entrepreneurs have decided to take that risk. More than two dozen women in the technology start-up industry spoke to The Times in recent days about being sexually harassed. Ten of them named the investors involved, often providing corroborating messages and emails, and pointed to high-profile venture capitalists such as Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital and Dave McClure of 500 Startups.

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This story is going to be a milestone in how Silicon Valley sees itself. Women will know now that they can always speak up, and they will be heard. It’s taken some time; five years ago I created a Storify of tweets observing a small corner of Silicon Valley sexism. (It’s had nearly 200,000 views – one of my most-read pieces ever.) Change is slow.
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Fitbit’s smartwatch project hits more hurdles ahead of debut • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Selina Wang:

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Hard hit by the sinking popularity of its fitness trackers, Fitbit has bet its future on the smartwatch. But such devices are typically wedded to an ecosystem of compatible devices, apps and services that lure then lock people in. While Fitbit’s watch can play music and handle payments, according to people familiar with the product, a discussed partnership with Spotify failed to materialize and technical challenges mean the app store may not be ready when the watch arrives this fall. Many app developers, meanwhile, are unenthusiastic about Fitbit’s watch.

“I’m more focused on the big boys like the Apple Watch and Android Wear,” says Damian Mehers, who developed a version of Evernote for Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. “I could consider developing for Fitbit if there was a compelling device and a large enough user base. I think it will be challenging to establish credibility.” Like many other developers, Mehers says the challenge is exacerbated by the fact that wearable devices still haven’t caught on widely, meaning they’re less desirable to write apps for than a smartphone.

In an emailed statement, Fitbit said the development of the smartwatch and third-party apps “are on track” and that “any claims that the developer program is struggling is false.” The company said it’s “well positioned to succeed.”

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The Apple Watch doesn’t have a particularly big app store; that isn’t the key element of a smartwatch. What does matter is tight integration with whatever platform you attach to.

So the Fitbit will have to do Android Wear better than Android Wear, because it won’t be able to get tighter integration than the Apple Watch on iOS. Android is by far the bigger platform, but its attach rate for smartwatches is lamentable.
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Echo Show review: Alexa gets more intrusive with camera and screen • WSJ

Geoffrey Fowler:

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I wouldn’t bet against the Show getting more screen skills fast: Amazon has proven far more successful at lining up partners for Alexa than either Apple Inc. or Alphabet Inc.’s Google have for their talking assistants. One of the Show’s first partnerships pairs it with the Ring video doorbell, one of my favorite smart-home devices. Just say, “Alexa, show me the front door.” It’ll also work with cameras from Nest, August and others.

As a gadget pioneer, I’m willing to wait for more skills. My problem is more fundamental: Living with a Show is too often perturbing—and occasionally creepy.

The first time I turned the Show on, the screen asked me if I’d like to subscribe to Amazon’s Audible service. I couldn’t proceed until I’d replied. (“No.”) It was my first reminder that the Echo Show is as much an Amazon sales kiosk as a kitchen helper.

Once up and running, the Show started flashing a series of calendar events, headlines and usage tips. One read: “Video: Baseball Mascot Outruns Fan. Try ‘Alexa, play the mascot video.’ ” That’s one way to teach owners about Alexa’s ever-growing capabilities. I assumed the tips would eventually fade.

But they didn’t. They keep refreshing every seven seconds. In the span of one minute, the Show nagged me to play Katy Perry and told me about a Batman-costumed policeman. It felt like one of those elevator displays took up residence next to my toaster. Voice-only Alexa was well-bred enough to speak only when spoken to.

This much is a relief: An Amazon spokeswoman tells me the company has “no plans or future intentions to advertise products on Echo Show.”

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Science division of White House office left empty as last staffers depart • CBS News

Jacqueline Alemany:

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The science division of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was unstaffed as of Friday as the three remaining employees departed this week, sources tell CBS News.

All three employees were holdovers from the Obama administration. The departures from the division – one of four subdivisions within the OSTP — highlight the different commitment to scientific research under Presidents Obama and Trump. 

Under Mr. Obama, the science division was staffed with nine employees who led the charge on policy issues such as STEM education, biotechnology and crisis response. It’s possible that the White House will handle these issues through staff in other divisions within the OSTP…

…”All of the work that we have been doing is still being done,” a White House official familiar with the matter told CBS News, adding that 35 staffers currently work across the OSTP.

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EPA: Pruitt will launch program to ‘critique’ climate science • E+E News

Emily Holden:

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US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is leading a formal initiative to challenge mainstream climate science using a “back-and-forth critique” by government-recruited experts, according to a senior administration official.

The program will use “red team, blue team” exercises to conduct an “at-length evaluation of US climate science,” the official said, referring to a concept developed by the military to identify vulnerabilities in field operations.

“The administrator believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals … provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science,” the source said.

“We are in fact very excited about this initiative,” the official added. “Climate science, like other fields of science, is constantly changing. A new, fresh and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.”

The disclosure follows the administration’s suggestions over several days that it supports reviewing climate science outside the normal peer-review process used by scientists. This is the first time agency officials acknowledged that Pruitt has begun that process. The source said Energy Secretary Rick Perry also favors the review.

Executives in the coal industry interpret the move as a step toward challenging the endangerment finding, the agency’s legal foundation for regulating greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and other sources. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, said Pruitt assured him yesterday that he plans to begin reviewing the endangerment finding within months.

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This may be the first ever example of gaslighting with the sole purpose of enabling (greenhouse) gaslighting. The problem though is that if the US indulges in this sort of lies-for-truth replacement, everyone suffers.
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Yet more reasons to disagree with experts on nPetya • Errata Security

Rob Graham thinks it’s a mistake to think that nPetya, the “ransomware” which spread far and wide in June, was actually written to spread well but do the ransom side badly:

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The context of this tweet is the discussion of why nPetya was well written with regards to spreading, but full of bugs with regards to collecting on the ransom. The conclusion therefore that it wasn’t intended to be ransomware, but was intended to simply be a “wiper”, to cause destruction.

But this is just survivorship bias. If nPetya had been written the other way, with excellent ransomware features and poor spreading, we would not now be talking about it. Even that initial seeding with the trojaned MeDoc update wouldn’t have spread it far enough.

In other words, all malware samples we get are good at spreading, either on their own, or because the creator did a good job seeding them. It’s because we never see the ones that didn’t spread.

With regards to nPetya, a lot of experts are making this claim. Since it spread so well, but had hopelessly crippled ransomware features, that must have been the intent all along. Yet, as we see from survivorship bias, none of us would’ve seen nPetya had it not been for the spreading feature.

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The survivor bias point is a good one.
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The creator of a super successful £27 computer said Brexit has been ‘rocket fuel’ for his business • Business Insider

Shona Ghosh:

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Eben Upton, the inventor of the super cheap Raspberry Pi computer, is careful not to voice an opinion about whether Brexit is good or bad. But Brexit has been good for his company in one respect — it’s become a lot cheaper to make the tiny computers in the UK.

“In the short term, the adjustment to the exchange rate has had a positive effect on UK manufacturing,” he told Business Insider. “It isn’t a great idea to devalue your way to success [but] it did make a substantial contribution to our profitability last year. It’s rocket fuel, it really is.”

“As an organisation, we carefully don’t have an opinion [about Brexit],” he added. “Our largest market is the US, we build in the UK. The second-largest is Germany, trading on the single market. It probably doesn’t make much difference.”

A weaker pound has benefited anyone who makes stuff in the UK and sells it abroad, so it’s not just Raspberry Pi. And Upton added that it was “a mixed bag”, since the computers are priced in dollars. That means they’re more expensive to buy in the UK now.

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Exporters do better at lower exchange rates, yes.
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The tragedy of FireWire: Collaborative tech torpedoed by corporations • Ars Technica

Richard Moss:

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Despite rising Mac sales, Apple’s financial situation remained dire. The company needed more income. After being informed of IBM’s hundreds of millions in yearly patent revenue, CEO Steve Jobs authorized a change in FireWire’s licensing policy. Apple would now charge a fee of $1 per port. (So if a device has two ports, that’s $2 per unit.)

The consumer electronics industry was outraged. They saw it as untenable and unjustified. Intel sent its CTO to talk to Jobs about the change, but the meeting went badly. Intel decided to withdraw its support for FireWire—to pull the plug on efforts to build FireWire into its chipsets—and instead throw its weight behind USB 2.0, which would have a maximum speed of 480 megabits a second (more like 280, or 30 to 40 MB/s, in practice).

Sirkin believes that Microsoft could have reversed the new licensing policy by citing the prior signed agreement. “Microsoft must have thrown it away,” he speculated, because it would have “stopped Apple in its tracks.”

“They could have said, ‘Look, here’s what your team agreed to, and now you’re violating that agreement.'”

A month later, Apple lowered the fee to 25 cents per (end-user) system, with that money distributed between all patent holders. But it was too late. Intel wasn’t coming back to the table.

This was the death blow for FireWire in most of the PC market. PC vendors would happily incorporate whatever was in Intel’s core chipset (like USB), but nothing else other than perhaps a dedicated graphics or sound card. “They’re so cost driven that adding one more IC is not an acceptable alternative,” Teener said.

Not even faster, better versions of the technology (a more efficient version of FireWire 400 followed by FireWire 800, which made it into the Mac, and FireWire 1600 and 3200, which didn’t) could save it. Nor could Apple, which also used FireWire in the first few generations of the iPod. The technology all but disappeared from the PC during the 2000s.

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Detailed rundown of what happened, though this is the core. Would Apple have kept the fee lower if it hadn’t been in such dire financial straits?
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VRScout on Twitter: “This Apple ARKit demo puts a portal right in front of you #AR via @nedd https://t.co/UEkhPLKnqQ”

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This is really remarkable. The idea is obvious enough when you see it, but it’s getting there – and then doing it – which is special. By Christmas there are going to be millions of devices capable of doing this.

Glasses capable of displaying this stuff looks like a natural next step. Also: they wouldn’t need exceptional battery life; these wouldn’t be like a smartphone, intended to be used all day (or not at first). You’d initially use them to explore products like this. So a short battery life would be less important in such AR glasses than a good display and positional accuracy. No wires required, either.
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Internet regulation: is it time to rein in the tech giants? • The Guardian

I wrote about this topic in The Observer (the Sunday sibling of The Guardian):

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Even as they revel in their network-reinforced positions, the big tech companies are battling with problems so big and intractable, and so far-reaching in their effects, that to find comparisons in the real world you have to look for truly global phenomena. The problems engendered by the internet have crept up on us over the years, but only recently have they seemed overwhelming. It’s like a social form of climate change, and the analogy works surprisingly well.

When the industrial revolution got under way, replacing human labour with machines was more efficient, more powerful, and expanded humanity’s horizons. Machines powered by coal and then oil liberated people from drudgery and made entirely new lifestyles possible.

No one knew that the accretion of emissions from those machines would contribute to potentially devastating climatic, and hence societal, changes. Even if they had known in the 1800s that steam power would affect the ice sheets of the recently discovered continent of Antarctica, so that two centuries later sea levels and surface temperatures would be rising, would they have cared? After all, it’s hard to say enough people do even now.

Comparing the internet’s social effects to climate change, one sees many of the same modest initial intents and big longer-term effects. For example, Twitter’s founders were trying to create a messaging system that could work on mobile phones and would be like the status messages used on desktop chat systems. Then they discovered it could offer real-time updates from anywhere, from plane crashes in the Hudson to what’s presently skittering across Donald Trump’s mind. But it has also contributed to an atmosphere where users can be harassed on a scale unimaginable in physical form.

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How Margrethe Vestager went after Google • POLITICO

Nicholas Hirst:

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As recently as Monday, just hours before Vestager spoke with Pichai, Google’s key Brussels advisers were unaware a decision was imminent — only learning through the press that a verdict that had been predicted to land at the end of July was suddenly expected by the end of the week, by Wednesday, by Tuesday evening, and finally on Tuesday at noon.

They were not the only ones in the dark. Vestager’s tight information control extended even to members of her own team. Hours before the announcement, the scale of the fine was known only to a small circle of insiders close to the commissioner — not to the wider team investigating Google. The date of the announcement was kept from officials in Vestager’s antitrust division not working on the case.

Google’s rivals — the companies bringing the case before the Commission — were none the wiser. Many of them were busy preparing for upcoming meetings scheduled with competition investigators, consultations in which they expected to provide the last of their input before the decision was announced.

The scheduled meetings were just one of several misdirections — intentional or not — that kept the wider world guessing at Vestager’s intentions. In the weeks ahead of the decision, rumors of a fine just over €1 billion circulated among advisers and journalists.

Vestager even managed to keep a tight lid on the information exchanged when she consulted national competition enforcers on the verdict a few weeks ago.

Behind the scenes, in Vestager’s office on the 10th floor at the Commission’s Berlaymont building, preparations for the big day had been taking place for months. A formidable communicator who places a premium on preparation, Vestager spent weeks listening to briefings by senior officials, probing the case’s strengths and weaknesses, running through mock questions and preparing the responses she would deliver from the podium.

One particular concern was that the case would become a flashpoint for transatlantic tension — potentially attracting the fury of U.S. President and tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump. And so Vestager’s office prepped figures and scripted responses so that she would be ready to debunk accusations that the Commission was unfairly targeting U.S. companies.

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In the event, Trump’s administration doesn’t seem to have taken the slightest bit of notice. Also worth reading: there’s a €10m contract to monitor Google’s algorithm for compliance. Once, I guess, everyone agrees what “compliance” looks like.
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Volterman: world’s most powerful smart wallet • Indiegogo

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Built-in Powerbank, Distance Alarm, Global GPS Tracking, Worldwide WiFi Hotspot, Anti-Thief Camera.

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It’s the “anti-thief camera” I’m most interested by. $135 gets you one. It’s miles past its goal, so it’s sure to happen. For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. (Thanks for the link to Maxim Vagner.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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