Start Up: fears of a smartphone nation, AI phooey, Tillerson on the edge, Puerto Rico redux, and more


“Alexa, why aren’t people watching our TV programmes?” Photo by duncan on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. (Tomorrow, another Blade Runner link, so consider yourself warned.). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia • The Guardian

Paul Lewis went to the Habit Summit:

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[Nir Eyal] was defensive of the techniques he teaches, and dismissive of those who compare tech addiction to drugs. “We’re not freebasing Facebook and injecting Instagram here,” he said. He flashed up a slide of a shelf filled with sugary baked goods. “Just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them,” he said. “Of course that’s what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?”

Without irony, Eyal finished his talk with some personal tips for resisting the lure of technology. He told his audience he uses a Chrome extension, called DF YouTube, “which scrubs out a lot of those external triggers” he writes about in his book, and recommended an app called Pocket Points that “rewards you for staying off your phone when you need to focus”.

Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless,” he said. “We are in control.”

But are we? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?

Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

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It’s an amazing piece. You recall how people like Jobs wouldn’t let their kids use devices for more than a few hours. Here are people like Loren Brichter (who invented the “pull to refresh” UI) regretting that they’re created something like the one-armed bandit of the smartphone.
link to this extract


The seven deadly sins of AI predictions • MIT Technology Review

Rodney Brooks is a former director of the Computer Science and AI lab at MIT:

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I recently saw a story in MarketWatch that said robots will take half of today’s jobs in 10 to 20 years. It even had a graphic to prove the numbers.

The claims are ludicrous. (I try to maintain professional language, but sometimes …) For instance, the story appears to say that we will go from one million grounds and maintenance workers in the U.S. to only 50,000 in 10 to 20 years, because robots will take over those jobs. How many robots are currently operational in those jobs? Zero. How many realistic demonstrations have there been of robots working in this arena? Zero. Similar stories apply to all the other categories where it is suggested that we will see the end of more than 90% of jobs that currently require physical presence at some particular site.

Mistaken predictions lead to fears of things that are not going to happen, whether it’s the wide-scale destruction of jobs, the Singularity, or the advent of AI that has values different from ours and might try to destroy us. We need to push back on these mistakes. But why are people making them? I see seven common reasons.

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The question is whether it’s a good idea to bet against this sort of change as he is doing, or whether betting on it is riskier.
link to this extract


Rex Tillerson at the breaking point • The New Yorker

Fabulously detailed, and balanced, profile of the capabilities and challenges of the US’s replacement for John Kerry (and, before him, Hillary Clinton) by Dexter Filkins:

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Part of the problem is that Tillerson has not entirely given up the perspective of an imperial C.E.O. He rarely meets with legislators, and has sometimes been high-handed with fellow Cabinet members. “It is a fundamentally counterproductive form of hubris,” the official told me. “People who should be easy allies for him, he’s kneecapping them.”

His most crucial relationship, with the President, may be broken beyond repair. In recent weeks, the Washington chatter has intensified about how long Tillerson will remain in the job. Rumors have surfaced about possible replacements, including Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director. “Think about it,” one of the aides I spoke to told me. “Tillerson was contemplating his retirement from Exxon, after which he could do whatever he wanted—travel the world, sit on corporate boards. Now he’s got to feel like he’s covered in shit. I can’t imagine this is what he expected.” Another official told me that Tillerson’s sole reason for staying was loyalty to his country: “The only people left around the President are generals and Boy Scouts. They’re doing it out of a sense of duty.”

The essential task of diplomacy remains the same today as it was in Dean Acheson’s time: to make a world out of chaos. The difference, for Tillerson, is that the chaos comes not just from abroad but also from inside the White House. In the popular mythology, the generals and the Eagle Scouts—Tillerson, Mattis, Kelly, and H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser—can protect the country from Trump’s most impulsive behaviors. But the opposite has proved true: Trump has forced them all to adopt positions that seem at odds with their principles and intentions.

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Tillerson – in case you’d forgotten – is the former CEO of Exxon, one of the world’s biggest companies; he recently called Trump a “fucking moron” in a Pentagon meeting. I found myself quite sympathetic to his challenges.
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I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise • The Washington Post

Leah Libresco:

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the next-largest set of gun deaths — 1 in 5 — were young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides. These men were most likely to die at the hands of other young men, often related to gang loyalties or other street violence. And the last notable group of similar deaths was the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence. Far more people were killed in these ways than in mass-shooting incidents, but few of the popularly floated policies were tailored to serve them.

By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them. Policies that often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.

Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.

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There’s such lack of nuance in the gun debate; insights like this show how complex it is.
link to this extract


Google gets green light to provide cell service in Puerto Rico using balloons • TheHill

Julia Manchester:

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The parent company of Google received the green light on Friday to provide emergency cellular service to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico using balloons.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it had granted Alphabet Inc. permission to use solar power balloons to bring cellular service to the island, which has been left largely without power since Hurricane Maria hit last month.

“FCC issues experimental license to Google to provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico through Project Loon balloons,” Matthew Berry, chief of staff to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, wrote on Twitter. 

Pai said on Friday he was launching a Hurricane Recovery Task Force focused on providing aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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I’ve mostly been very sceptical about Google’s Loon project, but this seems like the perfect – and timely – application. A hell of a lot easier than a rapid rebuild of a shattered infrastructure; I wonder how long this service will remain in place. It might be needed for months or even years. Of course, smartphone service isn’t much use without electricity…
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Puerto Rico has a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how it gets electricity • Earther

Brian Kahn:

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Forty-seven% of Puerto Rico’s power needs were met by burning oil last year, a ridiculously high percentage for a very expensive method of electricity generation. For the U.S. as a whole, petroleum accounted for just 0.3% of all electricity generated in 2016. The majority of the rest of Puerto Rico’s energy came courtesy of coal and natural gas, with renewables accounting for just 2% of electricity generation.

Yet as recently as 2012, Puerto Rico’s use of oil accounted for 60% of all electricity generation. All the years of paying for expensive imported oil precipitated the shift to include other generating sources, but the switch came too late. Paying for oil drained [the island’s electrical utility] PREPA’s coffers [it filed for bankruptcy in July] and caused deferred maintenance for years.

“In that time of extreme petroleum prices, the utility was borrowing money and buying oil in order to keep those plants operating,” Luis Martinez, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council and former special aide to the president of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, told Earther. “That precipitated the bankruptcy that followed. It was in pretty poor shape before the storm. Once the storm got there, it finished the job.”

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link to this extract


Where Amazon is failing to dominate: Hollywood • WSJ

Ben Fritz and Joe Flint:

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When it started producing original video in a bid to attract and retain subscribers for its Prime service four years ago, Amazon boasted it wouldn’t follow typical Hollywood practices such as relying on executives’ creative instincts and would base programming decisions on data. But staffers say it has largely abandoned that approach.

“We were supposed to bring the best practices of one of the most successful companies in America to Hollywood,” said an Amazon Studios executive. “Instead, we’re getting chewed up.”

Despite annual spending of about $4.5 billion to produce or acquire programming, Amazon Studios has had no hits on the scale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” or Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” said people at the company.

Even its most acclaimed shows draw relatively small audiences. Fewer than one million people have watched recent seasons of “Transparent,” which won Emmys in 2015 and 2016, said an Amazon Studios employee.

Mr. Price recently admitted at a meeting with agents he had done too much “programming to Silver Lake,” a hipster neighborhood in Los Angeles, said a person present.

Producers who have made shows for Amazon describe a chaotic environment.

“I’m a huge fan of the company overall, but their entertainment division is a bit of a gong show,” said David E. Kelley, creator of “Goliath” and hit shows including “Big Little Lies,” “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal.” “They are in way over their heads.”

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Personally I watched one episode of The Man In The High Castle and gave up. I’d read the book just before but it didn’t work for me.
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Renewable energy comes at you fast • Bloomberg Gadfly

Liam Denning:

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Rising costs are an obvious impediment to any industrial project, while falling costs provide an obvious edge. But don’t overlook the importance of time.On Wednesday, the International Energy Agency released its latest outlook for renewable energy and made this observation:

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We see renewables growing by about 1,000 gigawatts by 2022, which equals about half of the current global capacity in coal power, which took 80 years to build.

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Let’s adjust those numbers for utilization and say, very roughly, that coal plants produce at just 60% of their capacity and renewable sources at just 30%. Even then, we are talking about renewable energy with the equivalent of a quarter of the effective capacity of the world’s coal power, which took eight decades to build, switching on within half a decade.

Regular readers (indulge me) will know that I tend to harp on about the importance of marginal change in energy trends. This time is no different.

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link to this extract


Apple and Qualcomm’s billion-dollar war over an $18 part • Bloomberg

Max Chafkin and Ian King:

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“Here it is,” Apple’s Sewell says, sliding a fingernail-size square covered with electrodes across a conference room table: a Qualcomm modem. “That thing sells for about $18.”

He means the chip itself, before any royalties. Qualcomm’s business model, which is either ingenious or diabolical depending on whom you talk to, is to allow any chip company to use its technology royalty-free. Phone manufacturers can choose to buy chips from Qualcomm or one of the other five companies that make modems using Qualcomm’s technology. Either way, they still have to pay Qualcomm its 5% [of the phone’s retail price].

Because Qualcomm spends more on R&D than any of its peers, its modems are the most advanced. For years, Apple considered Qualcomm’s to be the only modems good enough for the iPhone. That, Sewell says, is why Apple put up with Qualcomm’s licensing scheme for years. If Apple refused to pay the royalty, Qualcomm could cut off its modem supply, forcing Apple to rely on inferior chips. That calculation changed in 2015, when Apple began working with Intel Corp. to develop a modem that was used in some versions of the iPhone 7. “What prompted us to bring the case now as opposed to five years ago is simple,” Sewell says. “It’s the availability of a second source.”

Around the same time, Apple began demanding more drastic concessions from Qualcomm.

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The idea that what you pay for a patent – which is some fractional part of the phone’s function – depends on its final price seems bizarre. I thought Microsoft had won that case over Motorola years ago.

(Terrific “animoji” illustration at the top of the article.)
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Stephen Paddock and the world of video poker • The New Yorker

Charles Bethea on the swirling speculation that the Las Vegas killer had a gambling problem, given that he seems to have been an obsessive player of video poker (which pays out $99.17 for every $100 put in):

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Dominic Biondi, a part-time English-department lecturer at U.N.L.V. who also makes a living as a professional poker player, has a different view of video poker and those who play it. “There are people who claim you can beat video poker,” Biondi told me today, “but I’m skeptical. It’s a slot-machine game with a set percentage of payback. If all this guy did was play video poker, he was not a ‘poker player.’ He’s just gambling.” He went on, “There’s a small chance that Paddock played the percentages very well and eked out a small edge, but it’s very doubtful. That takes a lot of skill and time, and only playing one particular kind of video-poker machine. To make money playing video poker, it takes a lot of luck.” He added, “The fact that this guy was a video-poker player just makes me shrug. He was not a real poker player.”

Curtis, meanwhile, is critical of what he calls “very square,” gambling-related conjecture from the media about Paddock’s motives for the mass shooting at the music festival. Many observers have floated the theory that he had incurred gambling debts that he couldn’t pay off. On Wednesday, Yahoo reported that “Paddock’s finances have become a significant focal point” in the authorities’ search for a motive. According to Yahoo, more than two hundred “casino or wire transactions by Paddock . . . were flagged for review by FinCEN, the U.S. government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which collects data to identify potential money laundering or covert terrorism financing.” Casinos are required by the federal government to follow a variety of regulations intended to prevent money laundering.

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I can believe that playing endless games of video poker would do something bad to your brain, though. Just imagine what it would be like to play for a day; then to come back; then to come back and back and back.
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Is it true that iPhones get slower over time? • Futuremark Consulting

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Last week, a story went viral that claimed Apple was intentionally slowing down older iPhones to push people to buy its latest models.

The claim was based on data which shows Google searches for “iPhone slow” spiking dramatically with the release of each new model.

And while plenty of reputable sites debunked the logic of that claim, no one looked at actual performance data to tell the true story.

Fortunately, we have plenty of real-world data we can use. Since 2016, we have collected more than a hundred thousand benchmark results for seven different iPhone models across three different versions of iOS.

These benchmark results provide a unique insight into the everyday performance of each iPhone model over time. And, as you’ll see, there are no signs of a conspiracy.

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So, no. Though people have complained about battery life on iOS 11.0. I’d suggest restarting, and perhaps waiting to 11.1.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up: fears of a smartphone nation, AI phooey, Tillerson on the edge, Puerto Rico redux, and more

  1. If you haven’t tried Amazon’s “The Tick” its quite fun (and a bit darker than the last time they did a live action version).

    And my daughter really liked their “Lost in Oz” cartoon. Its surprisingly good for what’s supposed to be a kids show (let me put it this way. I watch it with her).

  2. Re iPhone slowdowns, synthetic tests, which are focused in hardware performance, make utterly no sense to measure OS-version performance issues. You want applications tests at least, or preferably scenario tests. Because most issues won’t be low-level (drivers barely change, neither do interrupts), the issues always are linked to OS memory use and paging, filesystem, new OS features and background apps eating up CPU/GPU cycles, garbage collection…
    The FutureMark tests are useless to get that info, measure irrelevant stuff, and prove nothing

    • Have you seen any tests which might be usable as a measure of this, rather than synthetic benchmarks (which are of course, as you say, “synthetic” in their nature)? The “open app/switch to another app/switch to another/” cycling so beloved of YouTube video testers, perhaps?
      In the end all these methods used to measure something will come across as “synthetic” because we’ll object that “that’s not how I use MY phone”. But they might at least be a pointer?

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