Start Up: Google facing Android fine?, Jawbone exits, Texas’s political portents, Twitter truths, and more


Ultrasonic beacons are seen but not heard – at least by humans. Phones are another matter. Photo by Ignatius Wahn on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Also, you know, Friday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: EU considers record fine as panel checks Google Android case – sources • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

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EU antitrust regulators are weighing another record fine against Google over its Android mobile operating system and have set up a panel of experts to give a second opinion on the case, two people familiar with the matter said.

Assuming the panel agrees with the initial case team’s conclusions, it could pave the way for the European Commission to issue a decision against Alphabet’s Google by the end of the year.

The Commission in April last year charged Google with using its dominant Android mobile operating system to shut out rivals following a complaint by lobby group FairSearch, US-based ad-blocking and privacy firm Disconnect Inc, Portuguese apps store Aptoide and Russia’s Yandex.

The move by the EU competition authority, which hit the company with a €2.4bn ($2.7bn) penalty for unfairly favoring its shopping service last month, could pose a bigger risk for the world’s most popular internet search engine because of Android’s huge growth potential.

The potential fine is expected to top that €2.4bn penalty.

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Compared to the shopping decision, this one will have come down in record time. The argument – that Google used the dominance of Android to shut out rivals – is slightly circular; Android got big in large part because it had Google in there. But the logic will be that it already had desktop dominance (true) and then used that to muscle out would-be rivals.
link to this extract


Hundreds of apps can listen for marketing ‘beacons’ you can’t hear • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

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There are certainly legitimate uses of “ultrasonic cross-device tracking” technology. Some apps are part of rewards programs that automatically offer customers promotions when they visit particular stores. Others facilitate ticketing at events like sports games.

But plenty of apps deploy it without so clear a use case, at least as far as direct benefits for the person who downloads them. In fact, research presented last week at the IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy found 234 current Android applications that incorporate a particular type of ultrasonic listening technology. That doesn’t quite constitute widespread distribution, but the infrastructure to support it has landed in more and more apps every year. And there are many mainstream examples, like the Philippines versions of the McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme apps. That doesn’t mean these apps have the function turned on, necessarily, but they are ready to support it at any time.

Beacon technology is also showing up in more physical locations. While the researchers didn’t find any ultrasonic tones being broadcast out on a sampling of television programming from seven countries, they did find that four of the 35 retail stores they visited around Germany did have beacons installed. “It was really interesting to find beacons at the entrance of some stores in two German cities,” says Erwin Quiring, a privacy and Android security researcher who worked on the study. “It affects all of us if there’s some kind of privacy invasive technique we don’t know about and which runs silently on phones.”

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Worth checking what apps are demanding to use your microphone on iOS or Android.
link to this extract


Jawbone to be liquidated as Rahman moves to health startup • The Information

Reed Albergotti:

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Jawbone, the consumer electronics firm once valued at $3bn, is going out of business. The company has begun liquidation proceedings, after years of financial pressures, according to a person close to Jawbone. 

Jawbone co-founder and CEO Hosain Rahman has founded a new company called Jawbone Health Hub that will make health-related hardware and software services, according to the person. Many employees of Jawbone moved to the new firm earlier this year, the person said. Jawbone Health will service Jawbone’s devices going forward, said the person.

BlackRock, which loaned Jawbone $300m in 2015 and is the only secured creditor, received a stake in the new firm, the person said. BlackRock didn’t respond to a request for comment. An investor with no ties to Jawbone has put money into the health firm.

A notice sent to creditors said Jawbone entered into insolvency proceedings under California law on June 19.

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“Jawbone Health” would be sued by Jawbone for passing off if the latter weren’t closing down. What a coincidence.

Anyway: a wearable company shutters. The crunch goes on.

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How spammers, superstars, and tech giants gamed music • Vulture

Adam Raymond:

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A few weeks after the release of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” the hard-charging lead single on his fourth album Damn., the song landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s streaming chart. It’s been on the chart ever since, never falling below No. 3 as users have played it more than 291 million times on Spotify alone.

And that’s just the streaming total for Lamar’s version. His hit song has also been a boon for Spotify’s parasitic underbelly — the coverbots and ripoff artists who vomit out inferior versions of popular songs every week, flooding the website with dreck that only succeeds when users are misled. No one would willingly listen to King Stitch’s “Sit Down, Be Humble,” a third-rate cover of Lamar’s original, but the track has been streamed more than 300,000 times thanks to Spotify’s broad search results and a clever title designed to confuse those who don’t know the song’s real name.

On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist…

Even Spotify is reportedly gaming the system by paying producers to produce songs that are then placed on the service’s massively popular playlists under the names of unknown, nonexistent artists. This upfront payment saves the company from writing fat streaming checks that come with that plum playlist placement, but tricks listeners into thinking the artists actually exist and limits the opportunities for real music-makers to make money. Spotify did not respond to questions about the accusation, but this is not the first time Spotify, which pays minuscule streaming fees, has been accused of bilking artists.

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link to this extract


America’s future Is Texas • The New Yorker

Lawrence Wright with a fabulously long and detailed look at the bizarre politics of Texas, where whites are in the minority and Democrat-leaning voters in the majority, yet the legislature is mostly white and right-wing – with the aid of gerrymandering. There’s plenty of other detail; one could choose any extract, such as this:

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Politicians seldom pay a price for the damage that their legislation may do in the name of popular causes, such as declaring war or slashing taxes at the expense of vital social programs. In 2011, Governor [Rick] Perry vetoed a bill that would have banned texting while driving, saying that it was “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” Texas is always above the national average in the number of highway fatalities. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, more than four hundred Texans are killed every year in crashes related to distracted driving, often because they are texting.

To my surprise, the sponsor of the bill that Perry vetoed was Tom Craddick, the ultraconservative former speaker. This year, he put the measure forward again, for the fourth time. He compares it to Texas’s seat-belt law, which, he notes, “is very unpopular” in his district. “But they say that ninety-five% of the people obey the law.”

On March 29, 2017, in the middle of the legislative session, a welder named Jody Kuchler called the sheriff’s offices in Uvalde County and Real County to say that a white truck was driving recklessly down a two-lane highway, swerving all over the road. Kuchler, who was following the truck, told the cops, “He’s going to hit somebody head on or he’s going to kill his own damn self.” He then watched helplessly as the truck rammed into a bus carrying members of the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels. Thirteen people were killed. The driver of the truck was twenty-year-old Jack Dillon Young, who was largely unhurt. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting,’ ” Kuchler told reporters. “I said, ‘Son, do you know what you just did?’ ” (Young also had Ambien and other medications in his system.) The accident was one of many that might have been prevented had Governor Perry signed the 2011 texting bill into law.

That year, the Republican state legislature turned its attention instead to defunding women’s-health programs. “This is a war on birth control and abortions,” Representative Wayne Christian, a Tea Party stalwart from East Texas, admitted. “That’s what family planning is supposed to be about.”

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link to this extract


Microsoft will lay off thousands of employees • CNBC

Todd Haselton and Jon Fortt:

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Microsoft announced a major reorganization on Wednesday that will include thousands of layoffs, largely in sales.

The job cuts amount to less than 10% of the company’s total sales force, and about 75% of them will be outside the U.S., the company said.

Reports from last week suggested this was going to happen and that Microsoft was going to specifically focus on how it sells its cloud-services product, Azure.

Microsoft’s cloud business has been booming over recent quarters — Microsoft noted Azure sales growth of 93% last quarter. While Amazon has become a bigger competitor in the space, Microsoft’s restructuring is to pivot to software as a service, platform as a service and infrastructure.

“Microsoft is implementing changes to better serve our customers and partners,” a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC.

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With 71,000 employees in the US and 50,000 outside, the expected cuts are about 3,000.
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SoundCloud cuts 40% of staff, closes San Francisco and London offices • Tech Narratives

Jan Dawson comments on the Bloomberg story of 173 jobs going:

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SoundCloud continues to struggle to find a role for itself as a paid rather than free service. It’s become enormously popular as a free music source, but almost all the artists who start their careers on SoundCloud eventually cross over to the mainstream music industry and its more established business models, including paid streaming, which is becoming increasingly important and is driving almost all the revenue growth in the industry. SoundCloud’s failure to cross over with those artists to the paid streaming world is likely to be fatal unless salvation comes in the form of an acquisition.

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He reckons the mooted Deezer acquisition isn’t happening, and that this is the signal of it not happening.
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Why people with brain implants are afraid to go through automatic doors • Gizmodo

Kristen Brown:

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In 2009, Gary Olhoeft walked into a Best Buy to buy some DVDs. He walked out with his whole body twitching and convulsing. Olhoeft has a brain implant, tiny bits of microelectronic circuitry that deliver electrical impulses to his motor cortex in order to control the debilitating tremors he suffers as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. It had been working fine. So, what happened when he passed through those double wide doors into consumer electronics paradise? He thinks the theft-prevention system interfered with his implant and turned it off.

We live in a world of many, many signals. The more signals there are, the more opportunity for them to cross—and for people with implanted devices, the effect can be disastrous.

Olhoeft’s experience isn’t unique. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s MAUDE database of medical device reports, over the past five years there have been at least 374 cases where electromagnetic interference was reportedly a factor in an injury involving medical devices including neural implants, pacemakers and insulin pumps. In those reports, people detailed experiencing problems with their devices when going through airport security, using massagers or simply being near electrical sources like microwaves, cordless drills or “church sound boards.”

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“Brain implant” is a clumsy phrase, though one struggles to think of a better one. Medical implant?
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Amazon’s Echo Look does more for Amazon than it does for your style • The Verge

Lauren Goode tried it out (but would not have it in the bedroom):

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Beyond the granular details of the Echo Look hardware, the faux depth-of-field on the photos, or the outfits the app thinks I should wear, is the simple premise that Amazon thinks you don’t know what you want to wear. Which, on some level, is true for me: I am one of those people who regularly feels undecided about what to wear, which I blame on having spent my most formative years in a uniform of some sort. As I write this review, I have just finished ironing an entire suitcase filled with unnecessary items because I am generally nervous about traveling without the Right Thing to Wear.

I’m finding as I get older, however, that what I’m wearing is less about what’s cool right now right this minute and more about practicality. Is this item appropriate for a funeral? Is this too casual for an interview, or too precious for a casual coffee? Am I going to be freezing at a friend’s wedding if I wear this? If the answer is yes: why are you not recommending I buy a jacket or shawl for that? Is this something that someone half my age would wear? (Yes, if it’s in the Juniors department.) I’m looking for more context, basically. Amazon, perhaps more than any e-commerce company, has the ability to do this. Amazon says this is “just the beginning” with the Echo Look and that it will get smarter over time, but the Echo Look app is just not there yet.

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But her criticism is that to judge clothes, you need to know context, and the Look can’t know what context you’re wearing an outfit for.
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Twenty Theses about Twitter • ERIC POSNER

(Posner is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. The other 16 are worth looking at too:

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17. In Twitter, the same people act as if their audience consisted of a few like-minded friends and forget that it actually consists of a diverse group of people who may not agree with them in every particular on politics, religion, morality, metaphysics, and personal hygiene. Hence tweeting becomes a source of misunderstanding and mutual hostility. The Twitter paradox is that one seeks solidarity but is constantly reminded of one’s solitude. Fortunately, there is always the mute button.

18. Without realizing it, people who use Twitter damage the image of themselves that they cultivate in the non-virtual world.

19. The sense of validation that Twitter provides is as a potato chip is to a meal. A Frankfurt school theorist would say that the tweet is a commodified form of social engagement in Late Capitalism. Its effect is to alienate its users while immersing them in advertisements.

20. But Twitter doesn’t even make money for the capitalist class. It’s a black hole of value-destroying technology for all concerned.

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Still, could be worse, eh?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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