Start Up: California’s solar loop, watch an AI flirt, Xiaomi’s dice roll, speak to speakers, and more


Photobucket users can’t hotlink unless they stump up $400 annually. Photo by Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka on Flickr

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

California invested heavily in solar power. Now there’s so much that other states are sometimes paid to take it • Los Angeles Times

Ivan Penn:

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No single entity is in charge of energy policy in California. This has led to a two-track approach that has created an ever-increasing glut of power and is proving costly for electricity users. Rates have risen faster here than in the rest of the U.S., and Californians now pay about 50% more than the national average.

Perhaps the most glaring example: The California Legislature has mandated that one-half of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030; today it’s about one-fourth. That goal once was considered wildly optimistic. But solar panels have become much more efficient and less expensive. So solar power is now often the same price or cheaper than most other types of electricity, and production has soared so much that the target now looks laughably easy to achieve.

At the same time, however, state regulators — who act independently of the Legislature — until recently have continued to greenlight utility company proposals to build more natural gas power plants.

…“California and others have just been getting it wrong,” said Leia Guccione, an expert in renewable energy at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, a clean power advocate. “The way [utilities] earn revenue is building stuff. When they see a need, they are perversely [incentivized] to come up with a solution like a gas plant.”

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Kinda messy. But they don’t need *more* gas power plants.

link to this extract


I used a neural network to flirt with guys on Tinder, and it was a disaster • Mic.com

Melanie Ehrenkranz:

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On Monday morning, I fired up ye olde Tinder app and did what any modern woman looking for her soulmate should do: I messaged all of my matches with word vomit spawned from a machine.

“You must be a tringle? ’Cause you’re the only thing here.”

I hit on my Tinder matches using the approximately 20 pickup lines generated by research scientist Janelle Shane’s neural network framework. Shane used an open-source Torch add-on that uses machine learning to predict and generate text that is meant to imitate human language. In this case, it was writing flirty texts.

They ranged from the sweet (“I want to see you to my heart”) to the nonsensical (“I have a cenver? Because I just stowe must your worms”).

Algorithms are not very good at picking up on the nuances of human language and emotion. Fortunately, for a lot of dudes, that simply doesn’t matter.

I told one guy he “looked like a thing” and I loved him, and he told me he hoped I had a bush. I told another one I would bear his toot. He asked if I was looking to fuck and whether or not I liked Led Zeppelin.

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Wurl… you’re probably not going to get chatted up by a bot. Probably.
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Photobucket accused of blackmail after quietly requiring users to pay $400 a year to hotlink • The Verge

Natt Garun:

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Thousands of listings from online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy are now filled with unsightly error images by Photobucket after the photo hosting site quietly introduced a $399 annual fee to users who want to embed images on third party websites. Users are now accusing Photobucket of extortion, as the service failed to make the update to its terms of service abundantly clear.

It all began last week when Photobucket announced in a short blog post that it had updated its terms of service that had begun taking effect from June 20th. Nowhere in the blog post did Photobucket highlight the most important change, which was that it will now cost uploaders $400 a year to insert their photos on another website using direct image links.

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That blog post in full:

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At Photobucket, we are committed to providing the best experience and services for all of your photo and image needs. We have updated our Terms of Service, effective June 20, 2017. Please take a moment to review our updated terms and policies as they may affect your account.

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Those terms of service: you try to read them and it drops a giant modal saying “ENJOY ALL THE GREAT BENEFITS OF BEING A PHOTOBUCKET SUBSCRIBER ONLY $99 PER YEAR”. Amazingly annoying.

Free accounts, though, don’t get hotlinking. In fact nothing does – not the 52GB storage plan ($60/pa), the 102GB plan ($100pa); only the 500GB plan, $400pa.

I don’t know why Photobucket is tired of being on the internet, but clearly it just doesn’t want people to use it any more.
link to this extract


Fourth largest Bitcoin exchange. Bithumb, hacked for billions of Won • Brave New Coin

Luke Parker:

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The largest bitcoin and ether exchange in South Korea by volume, Bithumb, was recently hacked. Monetary losses from compromised accounts have started to surface, and are quickly reaching into the billions of won. [1bn won is about $0.9m, £0.7m.]

With a reported 75.7% share of the South Korean bitcoin market volume, Bithumb is one of the five largest bitcoin exchanges in the world and hosts over 13,000 bitcoins worth of trading volume daily, or roughly 10% of the global bitcoin trade.

The exchange also hosts the world’s largest ether market. While trade in the South Korean won currently makes up the fourth largest currency market for bitcoin, trailing the US dollar, Chinese yuan and Japanese yen, the won market is Ethereum’s largest. Bithumb accounts for around 44% of South Korean ether trading.

A cyber attack late last week resulted in the loss of billions of won from customers accounts. According to a major local newspaper, the Kyunghyang Shinmun, one victim alone claimed that “bitcoins worth 10 million won” in his account “disappeared instantly.” A survey of those who lost money from the hack reveals “it is estimated that hundreds of millions of won have been withdrawn from accounts of one hundred investors. One member claims to have had 1.2 billion won stolen.”

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link to this extract


The current state of ai: artificial intelligence in music, movies & more • hypebot

Thomas Euler (of Attention Econo.me):

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Today, we’ll be looking at the current-state-of-the-AI in three creative domains: music, writing and video/movies. Keen observers will note that I talked about six domains in the introduction. True. Yet, I was overly optimistic in thinking I could cover all six in a single piece (I mean, sure, I could. In a 4,000+ word piece aka a 20+ minute read; those don’t work particularly well on the web though). Thus, I changed the format on the fly. It’s now a five-part-series. I’ll cover painting, games, and advertising next week.

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A useful little tour through what’s happening; some of these have featured here before, but it’s good to have them in one place. And the videos are fun.
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Xiaomi goes old school to reclaim smartphone crown in China • Bloomberg

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Xiaomi Corp. pioneered an online flash-sales model that lifted it to dizzying heights and made it Asia’s most valuable startup, but it’s since fallen on hard times. Now it’s counting on old-fashioned retail to make a comeback, and that’s proving a much stiffer challenge. 

The smartphone maker is going through a major transformation after missed targets prompted a bout of soul-searching by billionaire co-founder Lei Jun. From Harbin in the chilly northeast to glitzy eastern Shanghai, it aims to build 1,000 “Mi Homes” by 2019 – about twice Apple Inc.’s global store count – that will rake in an envisioned 70 billion yuan ($10bn) in sales by 2021.

Xiaomi – which has no real track record running stores or armies of sales reps – wants to set an upmarket tone for its brand by building its own signature outlets. But it’s taking on surging rental and labor costs, while rivals Huawei, Oppo and Vivo have sewn up prime locations by striking deals with hundreds of thousands of resellers.

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Oh suuure Xiaomi can make retail outlets work. Suuuuuure.

In related news: Xiaomi signed a patent deal with Nokia. It’s a cross-licensing deal, apparently, though I’d think the money mostly goes to Nokia.

Upshot: Xiaomi’s smartphone margins just got worse, and I don’t think they were necessarily that great to start with.
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Digital assistants’ adoption: a marathon not a sprint! • Tech.pinions

Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies:

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The industry is obsessed about determining who is ahead in artificial intelligence and whose assistant is smarter. Consumers, however, do not seem to be asking much of today’s digital assistants.

Alexa reached 15,000 skills just the other day, and Google Assistant and Siri have been growing in the range of tasks they can perform. Consumers are turning to them to ask the same things as they did last year: searching the internet, setting alarms, playing songs, asking directions and checking the news. What is encouraging, however, is that while searching the internet is still the primary task, all the others have grown in popularity compared to a year ago showing that consumer confidence might be growing.

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The “15,000 skills thing” is like saying that Unix has 15,000 commands. The problem is that if you don’t know them, you can’t find them because the command line doesn’t hint. Voice is like the command line in that sense. An SDK is nice, but it’s always going to be marginal until there’s some sort of standard way to interface to home gear – and that’s not going to happen for a long time.
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Will Apple’s bet on the market’s most expensive smart speaker pay off? • IHS Technology

Paul Erickson, senior analyst “Connected Home”:

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Amazon Echo is $179, Amazon Dot is $49, Google Home is $129. With seasonal promotion and third party hardware adding to the pricing mix, a smart-speaker-enabled household with HomePod will be between 2 to 8 times as expensive as the competition. It is thus likely that Apple will not be able to move significant volume of the HomePod in 2017 given how price-competitive the connected audio market (smart speakers, and Wi-Fi connected speakers overall) is expected to be in the fourth quarter. HomePod 2017 sales are expected to be primarily early adopters, the brand-faithful, and the higher income end of the iOS user base.
 
Sonos’ strategy shift highlights the questionable nature of Apple’s price positioning during its HomePod presentation, that $400-$700 is a reasonable price to expect for a smart speaker with quality audio and thus $349 is competitive…
 
Apple’s premium positioning ensures that it cannot hope to compete in pure volume with Amazon’s line (particularly the Dot) as an impulse-buy-friendly mainstream product. Instead, much like the Android-bound Google Assistant, over time it will be the iOS-bound nature of Siri that will spread the Apple-centric smart speaker proposition far and wide. Buyers will opt for the virtual assistant they are already familiar with. 
 
One notable difference from Google Home, however, is that Apple’s HomePod announcements were not accompanied by any indication of an SDK or tools to allow third parties to build similar hardware. As inexpensive third party Alexa and Google Assistant hardware begins to enable low cost of entry in Q4 2017 and beyond, Apple’s high cost of entry will slow HomePod penetration (and by extension the growth of Siri-controlled smart homes). Competitive pressures are expected to generate announcements of a near certain price cut (or release of a lower-priced model below $200) by June or September 2018.

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Question is how useful those tools are.
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Worldwide device shipments will decline 0.3% in 2017 • Gartner

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PC market decline is slowing
PC shipments are on pace to drop 3% in 2017, but the rate of decline is slower than in recent years, alleviated by Windows 10 replacement purchasing. Prices for components such as DRAM memory and SSD hard drives continue to rise, creating headwinds for the global PC market and — to a lesser extent — the smartphone market. The impact of component pricing on PCs is being reduced for buyers as producers absorb some of the cost into their margins — fearing the alternative of a reduction of their share of a competitive market.

“PC buyers continue to put quality and functionality ahead of price,” said Mr. Atwal. “Many organizations are coming to the end of their evaluation periods for Windows 10, and are now increasing the speed at which they adopt new PCs as they see the clear benefits of better security and newer hardware.”

Smartphone shipments set up for strong growth in 2017
Overall smartphone shipments will grow 5% in 2017, reaching nearly 1.6 billion units. End-user spending continues to shift from low-cost “utility” phones toward higher priced “basic” and “premium” smartphones. The smartphone market is now more dependent on new devices that offer something different, as users are extending their purchasing cycles and need to be enticed to make a replacement.

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I like how a (forecast) 3% decline in the PC market is presented as eh, nothing special, when it would have been huge drama a few years ago; while 5% growth in smartphones is “strong”, after years when it has been way over 20%. I guess it helps everyone feel things are OK-ish.
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The iPad is about to get more useful—and confusing • WSJ

Geoffrey Fowler has a try of iOS 11, still in beta. Much you’ll have seen, but I found this bit interesting:

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Drag and drop
This may be the most useful iPad skill yet: Now you can move things from one app to the next. Say you want to email a photo: Tap the image you want to send, then drag it over to your email app and drop it in a new message. It also works with text and files.


Drag and drop several photos by tapping the one you want, then tapping others to make a stack, which you drop as one item. PHOTO: EMILY PRAPUOLENIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

You can drag multiple things at once: Tap one photo, then use a different finger to tap on another, and they make a stack that you can drop as one.

Is this easier than holding command and selecting multiple things with a mouse or trackpad? No. But it is a clever use for the iPad’s multi-touch screen.

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Drag-and-drop is the sort of thing you’re unlikely to discover by accident; this “gather the flowers” variant even less so. Hope that Apple has some good instructional apps figured out for this.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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