Start Up: did UAE hack Qatar?, Pakistan’s font trouble, HTC sorry over ads, visualise Brexit!, and more


But what do all the logos mean? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Really. Photo by Stewf on Flickr.

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(Hello, yes, this is the post you were warned might not happen, but it has happened, so there you go.)

A selection of 11 links for you. Ain’t that something? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials • The Washington Post

Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima:

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The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Officials became aware last week that newly analyzed information gathered by US intelligence agencies confirmed that on May 23, senior members of the UAE government discussed the plan and its implementation. The officials said it remains unclear whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done. The false reports said that the emir, among other things, had called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas.

The hacks and posting took place on May 24, shortly after President Trump completed a lengthy counterterrorism meeting with Persian Gulf leaders in neighboring Saudi Arabia and declared them unified.

Citing the emir’s reported comments, the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt immediately banned all Qatari media. They then broke relations with Qatar and declared a trade and diplomatic boycott,

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Way back when, we linked here to an early report noting that those at the sheik’s talk didn’t hear him say the things reported on the website.

The timing makes sense; the “US intelligence agencies” monitoring sounds like the NSA doing its job. So did Trump know this was going to happen? If not, he ought to have done, and should have been told by the NSA subsequently, surely.
link to this extract


A solar eclipse could wipe out 9,000 megawatts of power supplies • Bloomberg

Naureen Malik:

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This rare event, during which the moon will completely obscure the sun, will cast a shadow along a 70-mile-wide (113-kilometer) corridor stretching from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21. Based on a Bloomberg calculation of grid forecasts, more than 9,000 megawatts of solar power may go down. That’s the equivalent of about nine nuclear reactors.


A map of the United States showing the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

The impact is a testament to the ninefold increase in solar installed in the U.S. since 2012 and highlights the risks associated with relying on an intermittent resource such as the sun for power. The onslaught of wind and solar resources is already regularly contributing to wild swings in power supplies across grids, sending wholesale electricity prices below zero on some days.

On Thursday, PJM Interconnection LLC, operator of the nation’s largest power grid covering parts of the eastern U.S., estimated the eclipse could take out as much as 2,500 megawatts of solar generation on its system from about 1:30 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. North Carolina and New Jersey may bear the brunt because so many panels are installed in those states. PJM said rooftop solar panels will account for 80% of the anticipated outages.

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I’ve heard that the earth completely obscures the sun for many hours a day, too, yet power supplies have generally managed to cope. This is a great attempt to connect the solar eclipse with solar power. It’s also desperate.
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Laundry Day – Care Symbol Reader on the App Store

Jan Plesek:

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This app will help you with your laundry. You can scan your laundry tags and app will tell you how to wash your clothes. It works like magic, but no, it is a technology!

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I love the idea of this app. Because some of those things really are so incomprehensible.
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Will the death of US retail be the next Big Short? • FT

Robin Wigglesworth has a long read on this:

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Private equity firms and hedge funds that specialise in corporate upheaval — so-called distressed debt investors that snap up struggling companies, taking them over in a restructuring and hopefully engineering a recovery — are largely shunning traditional retail, wary of the immense challenges, according to restructuring advisers.

Victor Khosla, founder and senior managing partner of Strategic Value Partners, a $6bn distressed debt hedge fund, says the list of troubled retailers his firm now monitors is “extraordinarily long”, but he is staying well away.

“Trying to figure out the bottom is hard. We have spent a lot of energy understanding these businesses, and have concluded that the vast majority of them are uninvestable,” he says. “Many of these were great businesses at some point in time, but the internet and changing consumer habits have destroyed them.”

Some retail chief executives who have managed to build relatively successful digital operations complain that their share prices are too low and are unfairly punished for the broader industry malaise. That may be, but “I remember hearing homebuilders say the same in 2006”, one hedge fund manager recalls, pointing out that even for traditional retailers the shift will be painful, given that people tend to make less impulsive purchases on the internet.

“A lot of incidental consumption doesn’t happen online. Most people don’t wander the digital aisles,” he says. A dollar spent in a shop in practice only translates to 80-90 cents online, even though costs are lower. Data released on Friday showed that core retail sales in June fell for a second month running for the first time since early 2015.

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It’s a terrific piece. You’ve heard about the impending death of US retail; this puts in the essential numbers. It might not be the next big short, but it’s a short, as one hedge fund manager puts it.
link to this extract


Remembering Liu Xiaobo: analyzing censorship of the death of Liu Xiaobo on WeChat and Weibo • The Citizen Lab

Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Jeffrey Knockel, Blake Miller, Jason Q. Ng, Lotus Ruan, Lokman Tsui, and Ruohan Xiong:

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The scope of censorship of keywords and images on WeChat related to Liu Xiaobo expanded greatly after his death. Our analysis of WeChat keyword-based censorship shows that after his death messages containing his name in English and in both simplified and traditional Chinese are blocked. His death is also the first time we see image filtering in one-to-one chat, in addition to image filtering in group chats and WeChat moments.

Sina Weibo maintains a ban on searches for Liu Xiaobo’s name in English and Chinese (both simplified and traditional). However, since his passing, his given name (Xiaobo) alone is enough to trigger censorship, showing increased censorship on the platform and a recognition that his passing is a particularly sensitive event.

Based on an initial analysis of Weibo’s suggested search keywords, we surmise that there continues to be genuine user interest in producing and finding Liu-related content using alternative keywords.

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link to this extract


HTC deals with backlash over pop-up ads on keyboard • BBC News

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Phone-maker HTC says it will fix an “error” that let advertisements pop up on the keyboard on some of its phones.

Many users expressed anger online that ad banners had started appearing above the touchscreen keyboard while they were typing.

HTC’s latest smartphones are sold with a third-party keyboard called TouchPal pre-installed as the default. The free version of TouchPal does usually show ads, but HTC said it was unintended on its devices.

HTC phones run the Android operating system, which lets people download and install a variety of third-party keyboards so that they can customise their typing experience.

Android comes with a default touchscreen keyboard built-in, but many companies including Google and BlackBerry design their own.

Other phone makers, including HTC, pre-install a third party keyboard such as Swiftkey or TouchPal. Criticising the software, TouchPal user Selina wrote: “It used to be good but recently ads keep popping up when I’m in the middle of something and it’s really inconvenient and annoying.”

Others were less kind. “I am done with your junk app forever,” said Ramtin. “The way you show your junk ads whenever I want to write something is the most stupid and annoying way of advertising ever. You don’t care about anything other than money.”

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The followup to yesterday’s link. “Control your core technologies” demonstrates that keyboards are actually a core technology.
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Where are industry eyes on Brexit? • Visual.ONS

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As Brexit negotiations progress, the staff and leaders of British industry will be keeping a keen eye on developments.

The EU is the UK’s biggest single trading partner: it accounted for 48% of goods exports from the UK and 39% of services exports in 2016.

And some industries will have a particular focus on negotiations – given the value of their exports to the EU – such as British carmakers and finance companies.

The EU also helps fund scientific research and development. Its regulations govern areas like British agriculture and there are more than two million EU nationals working in the UK, their employers ranging from hotels and restaurants to public services.

While the outcomes of Brexit – whether positive, neutral or negative for different businesses – will not be known for some time, analysis from the ONS shows where various industries are concentrated.

This gives a clearer insight into parts of the country that may have a particular interest in the Brexit debate, because they are home to a concentration of industry or industries which have most at stake when the terms surrounding access to the single market, the free movement of labour, levels of funding and existing EU regulations are discussed.

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Useful visualisation – which might have been more useful pre-vote.
link to this extract


Content isn’t king • Benedict Evans

On how we now have multi-sided markets where “exclusives” don’t really work any more:

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You pay an average of $700 or so every two years (i.e. $30/month) and Apple gives you a phone. Buy an Android instead and you lose access to the (hypothetical) great Apple television service. This is why people argue that Apple should buy Netflix. From a pure M&A perspective, buying Netflix and immediately limiting its business to Apple devices would halve its value – why buy a business and fire half the customers? Buying it without such a restriction would have no strategic value – Apple would just be buying marketing and revenue. But as Amazon has shown, you don’t have to buy Netflix – they’re not the only people who can buy and commission great TV shows. 

A question here, though, is how well a TV service, perhaps with a stand-alone monthly subscription, as for Apple Music, maps to an 18-30 month handset replacement cycle. Suppose Apple created the next huge hit show next spring and made it exclusive to its devices: very well, but how many smartphone users will be making an upgrade decision in the middle of watching the show, and how many will be deciding between an iPhone and Android 3 or 7 or 10 or 11 months later? How much does the archive matter? 

Perhaps a deeper question, setting aside the purely strategic calculations, is that Apple has always preferred a very asset-light approach to things that are outside its core skills. It didn’t create a record label, or an MVNO, and it didn’t create a credit card for Apple Pay – it works with partners on the existing rails as much as possible (even the upcoming Apple Pay P2P service uses a partner bank). So, Apple has hired some star producers and will presumably be commissioning some shows, with what counts as play money when you have a few hundred billion of cash. But I’m not sure Apple would want to take on what it would mean to have a complete bouquet of hundreds of its own shows. That would be a different company. 

If and when Apple does go back to southern California, meanwhile, it does so with nothing like the kind of negotiating power that it had in iPod days – Amazon and Netflix (if not also Google and Facebook) have seen to that. But that doesn’t mean that content companies have much more power either.

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link to this extract


SEC files insider trading charges against research scientist aiming to avoid SEC detection • SEC.gov

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The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced insider trading charges against a research scientist who allegedly searched the internet for “how sec detect unusual trade” before making a trade that the agency flagged as suspicious through data analysis.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that Fei Yan loaded up on stocks and options in advance of two corporate acquisitions late last year based on confidential information obtained from his wife, an associate at a law firm that worked on the deals. 

According to the SEC’s complaint, Yan made approximately $120,000 in illicit profits by selling his holdings in Mattress Firm Holding Corp. and Stillwater Mining Company following public announcements that they would be acquired by other companies.

Yan allegedly attempted to conceal his illegal activity by placing the illicit trades in a brokerage account bearing the name of his mother, who lives in China.  Among the internet searches he conducted was “insider trading in an international account.” 

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Also known as “how to use Google to incriminate yourself”. Though the “Mattress Firm Holding Corp” hardly sounds like the greatest business in the world.
link to this extract


‘Fontgate’: Microsoft, Wikipedia and the scandal threatening the Pakistani PM • The Guardian

Sune Engel Rasmussen and Pádraig Collins:

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The daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister has become subject of ridicule in her home country after forensic experts cast doubts on documents central to her defence against corruption allegations.

Mariam Nawaz Sharif is under supreme court investigation after the 2016 Panama Papers leak tied her to a purchase of high-end London property acquired through offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands.

The unlikely source of this latest controversy, in a scandal that has gripped Pakistan for more than a year, is a font designed by Microsoft.

Documents claiming that Mariam Nawaz Sharif was only a trustee of the companies that bought the London flats, are dated February 2006, and appear to be typed in Microsoft Calibri.

But the font was only made commercially available in 2007, leading to suspicions that the documents are forged.

Social media users have derided Sharif for this apparent misstep, coining the hashtag #fontgate.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, the Calibri font was developed in 2004 but only reached the general public on 30 January 2007 with the launch of Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Office 2007.

The Wikipedia Calibri page usually receives about 500 visits per day. On July 11 and 12 combined, it received about 150,000.

After users seemingly tried to change the article’s content to say the font was available from 2004, Wikipedia suspended editing on its Calibri page “until July 18 2017, or until editing disputes have been resolved”.

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Many thanks to Joel, a reader of The Overspill who originally passed on a link about this to me last Wednesday. I passed it on to the Guardian on the same day; this piece appeared last Thursday (but in my remiss way I only just came round to it). I’d like to think Joel’s input has had some influence on world affairs by bringing this to wide attention.

And the best headline: “Calibri row could mean Pakistan is sans Sharif.”
link to this extract


How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap • Financial Times

Lucy Kellaway:

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The first example I can find comes from 1994 when I wrote an article mocking ugly business jargon, arguing that language had got so stupid that the pendulum must soon swing back and plain talking about business would shortly reassert itself. The words I objected to back then? Global, downsize, marketplace and worst of all, the mathematically nonsensical “110% committed”.

What an innocent age that was.

Fast forward to July 2017, and an entrepreneur sits down to write a blog post about his company. “We are focused 1,000,000% on positive, move forward, actionable efforts to help facilitate change.” When someone sent me this bilge last week, I read it and shrugged.

Over the past two decades, two things have happened. Business bullshit has got a million% more bullshitty, and I’ve stopped predicting a correction in the marketplace. I’m 110% sure there won’t be one.

Not only has production risen in aggregate, the worst individual offenders have gone on surpassing themselves, oblivious to my attempts to shame them into stopping.

Howard Schultz is a champion in the bullshit space. The Starbucks executive chairman has provided me with more material for columns than any other executive alive or dead. Yet he is still at it, and still out-doing himself. Earlier this year, he announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were “delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience”.

In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is “an”. Mr Schultz has brewed up a blend of old and new jargon, the fashionable and the workaday, adding a special topping of his own. “Delivering” and “experience” are grim but not new. “Ultra-premium” is needless word inflation. “Immersive” is fashionable, though ill-advised if you are talking about scalding liquids. The innovation is “coffee-forward”. Sounds fantastic, but what is it?

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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