Start Up: hacking US votes, crypto-tulips, spool that thread!, signing gloves, and more


Radiohead’s new old 1990s album is enhanced with something for this 1980s wonder, the ZX Spectrum. Photo by Alessandro Gussu 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.

American democracy is now under siege by both cyber-espionage and GOP voter suppression • The Nation

Ari Berman:

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In September 2010, the District of Columbia unveiled a pilot project to enable overseas residents and people serving in the military to vote over the Internet, and invited users to test the system. Within 36 hours, University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman and his team were able to hack into it, flipping votes to candidates named after famous computers, like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and playing the Michigan fight song, “The Victors,” after every recorded vote. Amazingly, it took two days for election officials in DC to notice the hack and take the system down. The pilot project was eventually scrapped.

Though online voting remains a distant prospect in American politics, this wasn’t the first election system that Halderman hacked. On June 21, 2017, he testified before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in a hearing on “Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Elections.” “My conclusion,” Halderman told the committee, “is that our highly computerized election infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage, and even to cyber-attacks that could change votes.”

“Dr. Halderman, you’re pretty good at hacking voting machines, by your testimony,” Senator Angus King of Maine observed. “Do you think the Russians are as good as you?”

“The Russians have the resources of a nation-state,” Halderman replied. “I would say their capabilities would significantly exceed mine.”

It is now clear that Russian interference in the 2016 elections went far beyond hacking Democratic National Committee e-mails; it struck at the heart of America’s democratic process. “As of right now, we have evidence of election-related systems in 21 states that were tar-geted,” Jeanette Manfra, the chief cyber-security official at the Department of Homeland Security, testified at the Senate hearing.

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Strangely, nobody on the winning side (the GOP) seems overly concerned about this.
link to this extract


Radiohead album hides an app that only runs on an ’80s computer • Engadget

Tom Regan:

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In the age of the hipster, dust-covered and irrelevant mediums like the vinyl and cassette tape have slowly been given a new lease of life. Now, thanks to Radiohead, it looks like popular British computer the ZX Spectrum might be the next 80s relic to come back into fashion. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s genre-bending opus– OK Computer –Radiohead has released a £100 commemorative special edition of the album, entitled OKNOTOK.

As well as containing a beautiful looking art book, a collection of Thom Yorke’s notes and the expected limited edition vinyl of the album, the package also comes with a classic C90 cassette. While the vast majority of the 90-minute tape houses a collection of rare demos from the band, the last two minutes treat listeners to a bizarre high-pitched frequency. Quickly identified by Redditors as the grating greeting of the ZX Spectrum, one passionate YouTuber has cleverly EQ’d those digital squawks and squeaks to perfectly match the aging computer’s audio language.

Running those EQ’d files through a ZX Spectrum emulator, the software pops up with the names of all the band members, dating the software back to the 19th December 1996.

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Here you go then.


link to this extract


Crypto-tulips • Coppolacomment

Frances Coppola:

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There are three key stages in the lifecycle of a financial bubble:

The “Free Lunch” period. A long, slow buildup of price distortion, during which investors convince themselves that rising prices are entirely justified by fundamentals, even though it is apparent to (rational) observers that they are buying castles built on sand.

The “This is nuts, when’s the crash?” period. Everyone knows prices are far out of line with fundamentals, but they carry on buying in the irrational belief they can get out before the crash they all know is coming. Speculators pile in, hoping to make a quick profit. Prices spike. 

The “Every man for himself” period (sorry, FT, I couldn’t find a reference for this one). Prices crash as everyone runs for the exit. This can happen a number of times, separated by brief periods of stability when everyone congratulates themselves on a lucky escape. But they are wrong. The ship is sinking. 

This is what the three stages look like, charted: 

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that there are no tulips in this chart. That is because financial crashes don’t have to involve tulips. This one above, of course, is stocks. 

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But cryptocurrencies are now heading from stage 2 to 3, she suggests. Not just bitcoin – all of them.
link to this extract


Spooler • Tiny Subversions

Darius Kazemi:

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Enter the URL of the last tweet of a Twitter thread, press “Spool it!”, and the thread will appear as a blog post here. It only works for a single person’s thread, not replies from other people. This could take up to two seconds per tweet in the thread, so be prepared to wait.

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This is a neat tool, to be added to the long list of neat tools around Twitter; but now we’re in the times of 100-tweet threads (looking at you, Seth Abramson), it turns out to be important. A future improvement might be to find the whole thread from any point in it.

Anyhow, a good one to bookmark.
link to this extract


Designing the perfect date and time picker • Smashing Magazine

Vitaly Friedman:

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What could be so difficult about designing a decent date picker? Basically, we just need an input field and an icon that represents a calendar clearly enough, and once the user clicks on that icon, we pop up a little overlay with the days lined up in rows. Right?

Well, not every date picker fits every interface, just like not every interface actually needs a date picker. But when a date picker is required, quite often it’s just a bit too tedious and annoying to specify that one date, and too often it produces irrelevant results or even a zero-results page, although just a few minor refinements would make it much easier to use.

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time working with various companies trying out various approaches and studying them in usability tests. This series of articles is a summary of observations and experiments made throughout that time. Over the course of months, we’ll be exploring everything from carousels to car configurators.

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Everyone has come across an infuriating date picker, and a wonderful one, and wondered why the people who built the first didn’t use the second. This article demonstrates why it’s not quite so easy.

They’ve also previously looked at the design of accordions, if that’s more your thing.
link to this extract


Morgan Stanley: ‘Bitcoin acceptance is virtually zero and shrinking’ • Business Insider

Frank Chaparro:

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A research note out Wednesday by a group of analysts at Morgan Stanley led by James E Faucette said “bitcoin acceptance is virtually zero and shrinking,” despite its impressive appreciation. 

According to the bank, last year bitcoin was accepted at five of of the top 500 online merchants. Today, only three of the top 500 merchants accept bitcoin as a form of payment. 

“The disparity between virtually no merchant acceptance and bitcoin’s rapid appreciation is striking,” the analysts wrote. 

The investment bank outlined three reasons for the decline in bitcoin acceptance among merchants. 

The first reason has to do with the appreciation of bitcoin. Most owners of the cryptocurrency are unwilling to let go of their holdings to pay for goods because they expect the price of bitcoin to go up. This point underpins the bank’s thesis that bitcoin mainly functions as an investment vehicle rather than fiat currency that you could spend on goods and services.

Issues with bitcoin’s scalability, which has made transactions slow and expensive, is another reason the bank thinks merchants find bitcoin unappealing as a form of payment.  

Finally, there has been a lack of pressure from the people who run the bitcoin infrastructure, according to the bank, to push merchants to accept bitcoin as a form of payment. 

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So it might only be useful for peer-to-peer money transfer, not as a broad currency.
link to this extract


Glove turns sign language into text for real-time translation • New Scientist

Timothy Revell:

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A new glove developed at the University of California, San Diego, can convert the 26 letters of American Sign Language (ASL) into text on a smartphone or computer screen. Because it’s cheaper and more portable than other automatic sign language translators on the market, it could be a game changer. People in the deaf community will be able to communicate effortlessly with those who don’t understand their language. It may also one day fine-tune our control of robots.

ASL is a language all of its own, but few people outside the deaf community speak it. For many signing is their only language, as learning written English, for example, can be difficult without having the corresponding sounds to go with it.

“For thousands of people in the UK, sign language is their first language,” says Jesal Vishnuram, the technology research manager at the charity Action on Hearing Loss. “Many have little or no written English. Technology like this will completely change their lives.”

When they need to communicate with people who are not versed in ASL, their options are limited. In the UK, someone who is deaf is entitled to a sign language translator at work or when visiting a hospital, but at a train station, for example, it can be incredibly difficult to communicate with people who don’t sign. In this situation a glove that can translate for them would make life much easier.

The device consists of a standard sports glove kitted out with nine flexible strain sensors that are placed over different knuckles. When a user bends their fingers or thumb, the sensors stretch, and their electrical resistance goes up. The software uses these signals to work out the configuration of the hand.

Motion sensors on the back of the glove work out whether the hand is still or in motion, a necessary step to differentiating similar letters. For example, both the signs for “i” and “j” involve extending just the little finger. But for “i” the hand remains still, whereas to signify “j” you rotate your hand 180 degrees. The motion sensors detect these differences.

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link to this extract


PepsiCo decries same consumer trends battering retail • AdAge

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On Tuesday, PepsiCo Inc. CEO Indra Nooyi echoed what companies like Target and retail analysts have long been saying: More spending is happening online — and for experiences, health and wellness instead of possessions.

PepsiCo’s comments on consumer trends overshadowed the Purchase, N.Y., company’s second-quarter results and have consequences for the whole consumer staples sector, which has underperformed leisure and recreation stocks this year.

Customers are “seeking more premium experiences and at the same time seeking value. And across the spectrum, consumers continue to be interested in health and wellness but with differing definitions,” Nooyi said on a conference call with analysts.

As with retailers, consumer-products giants are adjusting to the world of Amazon and delivery startups. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. spent decades building a distribution system that serves vending machines and brick-and-mortar stores, but they’re still in the beginning stages of selling products directly to customers online.

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Ironic little note if PepsiCo were to suffer like physical retail. Probably won’t happen, but given its contribution to the ill-health of nations through excessive sugar and carbonic acid, it would be a beneficial side-effect of the internet-isation of everything. Though what would basement-dwellers quaff?
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SoundCloud sinks as leaks say layoffs buy little time • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

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A tense scene unfolded yesterday as user-generated, music-streaming service SoundCloud held an all-hands meeting to explain to employees why it suddenly had to lay off 40% of its staff last week.

Exiting team members wanted to know why they weren’t warned, while those who survived the cuts wanted assurance that the cost reductions would keep the company afloat for the long-run.
But as security ominously filed into SoundCloud’s meeting rooms at its offices around the world during the all-hands video conference broadcast from its Berlin headquarters, the startup’s staff discovered they wouldn’t be getting the answers they wanted. Instead, sources at SoundCloud tell TechCrunch that founders Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss confessed the layoffs only saved the company enough money to have runway “until Q4” — which begins in just 50 days.

That seems to conflict with the statement Ljung released alongside the layoffs, which noted that, “With more focus and a need to think about the long term, comes tough decisions.” The company never mentioned how short its cash would still last. 

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link to this extract


Traditional PC market fares slightly better than expectations as component shortage pressures ease • IDC

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Worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook, workstation) totaled 60.5 million units in the second quarter of 2017 (2Q17), posting a year-on-year decline of 3.3%, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. The results tilted just above the previous forecast that called for a decline of 3.9%, and hewed to the expectation that unlike past seasonal patterns of significant positive sequential growth, second quarter volume showed only a modest uptick from the first quarter.

Whereas one factor affecting shipments during the past several quarters was an inventory buildup caused by shortages of key components such as SSD (Solid State Drive), the second quarter operated under less harsh constraints, though in some instances component shortages still played a role in driving shipment dynamics. Moreover, as expected, the increased bill of materials (BOM) cost due to the shortage also began to impact the final price of systems, which was also factored into IDC’s original assumption of inhibiting shipments.

From a geographic perspective, mature markets generally outperformed emerging markets, with Asia/Pacific (excluding Japan) and Latin America in particular showing weakness, though Latin America did outperform IDC’s original forecast. The U.S. posted just a slight decline but otherwise also pulled ahead of forecast in part due to Chromebook activity. Japan again posted positive growth, in part against the backdrop of tough market conditions in 2015 through the first half of 2016.

“Amid some unevenness in market trends across the regions, the global PC market has continued to trend toward stabilization,” said Jay Chou, research manager, IDC Worldwide Personal Computing Device Tracker.

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I love how it’s “trending toward stabilisation” as the sales keep dropping year-on-year. Apple is now 4th biggest vendor worldwide (though less than half as large as Dell). Acer has dropped out of the top five.

Gartner’s view is even gloomier, with a 4.3% fall, though its total is slightly higher – 61.1m. But it says Chromebook sales grew 38% in 2016 – miles ahead of the PC market. But “not a PC replacement yet”, according to Gartner’s analysts.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Razer, the PC gaming company, is based in Singapore (not Hong Kong – that’s where it’s seeking a public listing).

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