Start Up: more on the Google man-ifesto, ARKit ahoy, hacking slot machines, Mumbai’s lethal railways, and more


Teens have smartphones. What has that changed? Photo by Photoglovey on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Have smartphones destroyed a generation? • The Atlantic

Jean Twenge is a sociologist, and says the arrival of smartphones has made a huge difference:

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Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

In the early 1970s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.

Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. My friends and I plotted to get our driver’s license as soon as we could, making DMV appointments for the day we turned 16 and using our newfound freedom to escape the confines of our suburban neighborhood. Asked by our parents, “When will you be home?,” we replied, “When do I have to be?”

But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.

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I’d also love to hear whether any sociologists have begun studying the effects on infants of mothers who are more interested in a black rectangle they’re holding than the infant’s face. That’s the next “smartphone” generation.
link to this extract


I am disappointed but unsurprised • Medium

Erica Joy:

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Saying yes to that question [the question being: “do we want this to be an environment where racists and sexists feel safe and supported to share their views?”] (and so it’s clear, choosing not to answer that question is the equivalent of saying yes to it) means a company should give up any notions of being diverse or inclusive. Saying “we want an environment that allows all opinions and a free exchange of ideas” to that question means a company has deemed racism and sexism viable opinions, worthy of being freely exchanged, instead of the hatred and bigotry that they are.

That message will be heard loud and clear by the targets of said hatred and bigotry, and will be antithetical to any other attempts at building a diverse and inclusive company. Employees will tell their friends (or the media in this case) about what the company is really about, and any efforts at improving diversity will be hampered. Inclusion will be a non-starter, since employees cannot feel included in an environment where their peers believe they aren’t worthy of being there and will say so, freely.

Employees cannot advance in a system that is built on peer evaluation if their peers believe them to be fundamentally subpar. Employees cannot feel a sense of belonging or, as Google itself told us, thrive in an environment when they do not feel psychologically safe.

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As was also pointed out elsewhere, if you have the broadest possible recruitment pool, then you increase your chance of getting the best candidates.
link to this extract


The Apple ARKit proves the future of augmented reality will be on your phone • WIRED

Jason Tanz:

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much of the stuff built with ARKit seems downright banal. One app lets you see how a new throw pillow would look on your couch. A menu app shows the proferred food as it might appear on your table. Sure, some developers are filling rooms with virtual water or building portals into alternate dimensions, but it’s the close-to-the-ground stuff that’s generating the most enthusiastic response. One video, which garnered 12,000 likes on the popular @MadeWithARKit Twitter feed, merely shows a digital tape measure unspooling.

That modesty of vision isn’t a handicap. It’s precisely why ARKit apps are more likely to catch on where other, more ambitious approaches have failed. It’s easy to forget, amid all the overheated rhetoric and consciousness-expanding possibilities, but most people don’t want technology to usher them into an entirely new plane of existence. They just want it to solve problems and make their lives easier.
Call it the Inductive Theory of Platform Development—successful consumer technologies don’t start with grand ideas that trickle down into products. They begin as small solutions that expand to become grand ideas.

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This is absolutely correct, but I don’t think AR will begin and end on the phone. Glasses are such an obvious next move.
link to this extract


Meet Alex, the Russian casino hacker who makes millions targeting slot machines • WIRED

Brendan Koerner:

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Alex’s life-changing introduction to slots came about a decade ago, while he was working as a freelance hacker. A Russian casino hired him to learn how to tweak machines manufactured by Novomatic, an Austrian company, so that their odds would favor the house more than usual: The machine had been programmed to pay out 90% of the money it took in, a figure that Alex’s client wanted him to adjust down to 50%.

In the course of reverse engineering Novomatic’s software, Alex encountered his first PRNG. He was instantly fascinated by the elegance of this sort of algorithm, which is designed to spew forth an endless series of results that appear impossible to forecast. It does this by taking an initial number, known as a seed, and then mashing it together with various hidden and shifting inputs—the time from a machine’s internal clock, for example. Writing such algorithms requires tremendous mathematical skill, since they’re supposed to produce an output that defies human comprehension; ideally, a PRNG should approximate the utter unpredictability of radioactive decay.

After wrapping up the casino gig, Alex spent six months teaching himself everything he could about PRNGs—in part because he admired their beauty but also because he knew that such expertise could prove profitable.“I mastered it to the point where I can develop such algorithms myself, on a level I am yet to see in a gambling machine,” says Alex, who will never be accused of lacking confidence. “It’s in my bloodstream now. I feel the numbers; I know how they move.”

In 2008 Alex unleashed his newfound mastery on the gambling world, hiring a small group of employees to “milk” Novomatic machines throughout eastern Europe. (Three years later, Novomatic became the first slots manufacturer to warn its customers that some of its PRNGs had been compromised.)

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Fascinating read. Nothing seems to be invulnerable apart from real radioactivity.
link to this extract


John Lanchester reviews ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu, ‘Chaos Monkeys’ by Antonio García Martínez and ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin · London Review of Books

John Lanchester:

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One man’s fake news is another’s truth-telling, and Facebook works hard at avoiding responsibility for the content on its site – except for sexual content, about which it is super-stringent. Nary a nipple on show. It’s a bizarre set of priorities, which only makes sense in an American context, where any whiff of explicit sexuality would immediately give the site a reputation for unwholesomeness. Photos of breastfeeding women are banned and rapidly get taken down. Lies and propaganda are fine.

The key to understanding this is to think about what advertisers want: they don’t want to appear next to pictures of breasts because it might damage their brands, but they don’t mind appearing alongside lies because the lies might be helping them find the consumers they’re trying to target. In Move Fast and Break Things, his polemic against the ‘digital-age robber barons’, Jonathan Taplin points to an analysis on Buzzfeed: ‘In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix.

The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. As Martínez explains in [the book] Chaos Monkeys, it has two goals: growth and monetisation.

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Long but definitely worth it, especially for the internet entrepreneur who describes one of the big internet firms as “scuzzy”. And for what Zuckerberg was studying for his other degree – the one not in computer science.
link to this extract


First evidence that social bots play a major role in spreading fake news • MIT Technology Review

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How does fake news spread in the first place?

Today we get an answer of sorts thanks to the work of Chengcheng Shao and pals at Indiana University in Bloomington. For the first time, these guys have systematically studied how fake news spreads on Twitter and provide a unique window into this murky world. Their work suggests clear strategies for controlling this epidemic.

Diffusion network for the article titled “Spirit cooking: Clinton campaign chairman practices bizarre occult ritual,” published by the conspiracy site Infowars.com four days before the 2016 U.S. election.

At issue is the publication of news that is false or misleading. So widespread has this become that a number of independent fact-checking organizations have emerged to establish the veracity of online information. These include snopes.com, politifact.com, and factcheck.org.

These sites list 122 websites that routinely publish fake news. These fake news sites include infowars.com, breitbart.com, politicususa.com, and theonion.com. “We did not exclude satire because many fake-news sources label their content as satirical, making the distinction problematic,” say Shao and co…

…Having made a judgment on the ownership of each account, the team finally looked at the way humans and bots spread fake news and fact-checked news.

To do all this, the team developed two online platforms. The first, called Hoaxy, tracks fake news claims, and the second, Bolometer, works out whether a Twitter account is most likely run by a human or a bot.

The results of this work make for interesting reading. “Accounts that actively spread misinformation are significantly more likely to be bots,” say Shao and co. “Social bots play a key role in the spread of fake news.”

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link to this extract


The Kronos needle in the AlphaBay haystack • emptywheel

“emptywheel” (the site has multiple authors) points out that it’s odd how quickly the FBI alighted on the Kronos malware sale on AlphaBay, given how much else there was to look at:

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look at the overall numbers FBI boasted for AlphaBay when it announced its takedown on July 20, nine days after the indictment targeting Hutchins.

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AlphaBay reported that it serviced more than 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors. Around the time of takedown, the site had more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals, and more than 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and fraudulent services. By comparison, the Silk Road dark market—the largest such enterprise of its kind before it was shut down in 2013—had approximately 14,000 listings.

The operation to seize AlphaBay’s servers was led by the FBI and involved the cooperative efforts of law enforcement agencies in Thailand, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, along with the European law enforcement agency Europol.

“Conservatively, several hundred investigations across the globe were being conducted at the same time as a result of AlphaBay’s illegal activities,” Phirippidis said. “It really took an all-hands effort among law enforcement worldwide to deconflict and protect those ongoing investigations.”

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Of the 40,000 vendors charged within a month of takedown, of the 250K drug listings and the 100K fraudulent services listings, the guy who sold Kronos once for $2,000 (whom Tom Fox-Brewster thinks might be a guy named VinnyK) — and by virtue of American conspiracy laws, Hutchins — were among the first 20 or so known to be charged for using AlphaBay.

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All the indicators are that someone who was nabbed in the AlphaBay sting was somehow implicated in Kronos, and put Hutchins’s name forward as a co-conspirator. It’s a way to get the feds off your back.
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Financial Times returns to Apple’s App Store after six-year hiatus • WSJ

Jack Marshall:

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The company hopes its new app, available for iPhone and iPad, will help boost subscriber engagement with its content and in turn increase the revenue it is able to extract from its customers over the long term.

“We know that an engaged reader results in a larger lifetime value,” said Cait O’Riordan, the FT’s chief product and information officer. “We want to know if a native app can help drive that engagement number.”

Since 2011, Apple device users have only been able to access the FT’s full range of content via its mobile website. The FT decided to invest in its web offering rather than a “native” iOS app partly because of Apple’s requirement to be paid a 30% cut of any subscription revenue generated from apps in its App Store, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new iOS app will therefore only be accessible to existing FT subscribers. New readers won’t be able to purchase subscriptions from within the app itself, but must instead do so from the FT’s website before logging in.

This model means the FT can avoid giving Apple a cut of subscription revenue and will allow it to collect payment information and other valuable data directly from its subscribers. Spotify and other subscription-based services have taken a similar approach in recent years.

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The end-run around the subscription problem (Amazon does the same thing on Kindle books) seems like a suitable solution to the problem. One wonder why it took the FT six years to figure this out.

Also – minor point – shouldn’t the final word in the headline be “absence” rather than “hiatus”? The app was withdrawn. It didn’t pause.
link to this extract


An everyday brush with disaster on Mumbai’s crowded railway • FT

Simon Mundy:

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Samir Zaveri pondered my bloodshot eye and stitched-up shin and shook his head at my good fortune. On a table between us was a sheath of documents detailing the casualties on Mumbai’s trains in recent years — police figures obtained by Zaveri under India’s Right to Information Act.

The statistics are a grim testament to the terrible safety record of the country’s transport network — even as this rising power pursues grand projects such as a $17bn high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

Mumbai’s trains are often described as the city’s “lifeline”, carrying 7m passengers a day — largely people from the sprawling suburbs who work in offices on the narrow peninsula of old Bombay. Yet last year alone, 3,202 people were killed on the system, while a further 3,363 suffered amputations or other serious injuries.

About a third of these casualties result from people walking over train tracks in the absence of boundary walls. Most others, Zaveri says, stem from overcrowding on a network that packs about 5,560 passengers on to each 12-car train in peak hours, against a rated safe capacity of 3,522.

Zaveri lost both legs aged 17 after slipping on the track. While sitting in a disabled carriage in 2006, looking around at others whose limbs were lost on the railways, he decided to act. The result was a series of court petitions, arguing that the railway authorities were breaching their constitutional duty to protect their passengers’ lives.

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This article’s intro (lede to Americans) deserves some sort of award. It reads:

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You gain a certain perspective on India’s safety challenges from lying on a Mumbai railway platform, under a surging crowd, while a moving train cuts into your lower leg.

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Overall, the article goes to show that driverless cars are only a small fraction of the problem.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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