Start Up: Shazam for art, why the iPhone X notch?, Google’s TAC tax, the plastic-chewers, and more


Not hacker central, but passport control in North Korea. Its hackers are busy elsewhere. Photo by (stephan) on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Effervescence! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Allies’ wartime operational plan presumably stolen by N.K. hackers last year: lawmaker • Yonhap News

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North Korean hackers are believed to have stolen a large amount of classified military documents, including the latest South Korea-U.S. wartime operational plan, last year, a ruling party lawmaker said Tuesday.

Citing information from unnamed defense officials, Democratic Party Rep. Lee Cheol-hee said that the hackers broke into the Defense Integrated Data Center in September last year to steal the secret files, such as Operational Plans 5015 and 3100.

OPLAN 5015 is the latest Seoul-Washington scheme to handle an all-out war with Pyongyang, which reportedly contains detailed procedures to “decapitate” the North Korean leadership. OPLAN 3100 is Seoul’s plan to respond to the North’s localized provocations.

Lee said that 235 gigabytes of military documents were taken with the content of nearly 80% of them yet to be identified. Also among them were contingency plans for the South’s special forces, reports to allies’ top commanders, and information on key military facilities and power plants, he added.

“The Ministry of National Defense has yet to find out about the content of 182 gigabytes of the total (stolen) data,” the lawmaker said in a statement.

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North Korea’s hacking capabilities have been underestimated since 2011 – when Kim Jong-un, its youngest leader ever, who was tutored in the west, took over. Those facts aren’t coincidence.
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New app Smartify hailed as “Shazam for the art world” • Dezeen

Gunseli Yalcinkaya:

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An app has launched that allows users to instantly identify artworks and access information about them, by simply scanning them with a smartphone.

Smartify launched at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last week. It has been described by its creators as “a Shazam for the art world”, because – like the app that can identify any music track – it can reveal the title and artist of thousands of artworks.

It does so by cross-referencing them with a vast database that the company is constantly updating.

Smartify is already in use in over 30 of the world’s major galleries and museums, including the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Met in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles.

The company refuses to reveal exactly how it works, but said that it creates “visual fingerprints” to differentiate between each artwork.

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I was present at the very first live test of Shazam (in a pub in Dean Street in 2003 or so); I didn’t think it could work because it would need constant updates from the record companies. What I missed was that the record companies would want people to know what they were hearing, and so helped to update Shazam’s database.

Not so sure that the same applies for art. But I’ve been wrong before…
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The iPhone X’s notch already works • BGR

Chris Smith:

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the side effect of Apple’s decision to introduce both an all-screen iPhone design and the Face ID functionality this year is the ugly “notch.” There’s no way to defend it, especially when it comes to the iPhone X’s user interface.

But the phone’s notch has a second, possibly unintended purpose that is becoming more evident as we approach the iPhone X’s November 3rd release date.

The notch gives the iPhone X a unique design that will be easily recognized by anyone. Rather than being an all-screen device that has only generic features, the iPhone X has the camera sensor at the top that breaks the display line at the top of the phone.

iPhone fans can easily tell when someone is using an iPhone X. So can iPhone haters. A glance at the notch is enough to confirm the phone is indeed Apple’s best iPhone to date. And it’s even easier to spot the iPhone X in the wild right now.

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Yes. Exactly this. Apple is a company which not only wants you to enjoy using your device; it wants other people to know you’re using it too. Why else the bright white of EarPods, and then AirPods? Why else the huge fights with Samsung over the “design patent” of the iPhone, and particularly the roundness of the corners? If there was one thing that infuriated Apple executives in the past decade, it was Samsung’s blatant copying of the appearance of the iPhone 3GS.

The notch is a subtle nudge to anyone not using the phone that this one is different. Smith has put his finger on it; people like Marco Arment and John Gruber who find the notch unconscionable are missing the point. Design is how it works: the notch works to tell people that this is the iPhone X.

If you don’t believe me, watch out for how many phones next year try to “extend” their screen above the front-facing camera, which is of course centred, because why not? Oh, you say it looks like the iPhone X?
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iPhone: designed for misuse? • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr on Jony Ive’s comment that “constant use” of one’s phone might constitute “misuse”:

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Maybe I’m the cynic, but it’s hard not to conclude, from everything we know about the iPhone and its development and refinement, that it has in fact been consciously and meticulously designed to encourage people to use it as much as possible. Here, for example, is how Apple is promoting the new iPhone X at its web store:

If Apple’s “vision” has always been to create a phone “so immersive the device itself disappears into the experience,” it’s hard for me to credit Ive’s suggestion that people are misusing it by immersing themselves in it. If “constant use” is a misuse of the iPhone, then the device has been designed for misuse. And the future we’re supposed to welcome will be one in which the smartphone becomes all the more encompassing, the line between gadget and experience all the more blurred.

If Ive is sincere in his belief that people should be more disciplined in their use of smartphones — and I believe he is — I’m sure he’ll be able to find elegant ways to use design features to deter constant use.

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I guess you could always limit its battery life 🤔
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Google’s $19bn black box is worrying investors • Bloomberg

Shira Ovide on Google’s TAC – traffic acquisition costs:

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These Google traffic fees are the result of contractual arrangements parent company Alphabet Inc. makes to ensure its dominance. The company pays Apple to make Google the built-in option for web searches on Apple’s Safari browsers for Mac computers, iPhones and other places. Google also pays companies that make Android smartphones and the phone companies that sell those phones to make sure its search box is front and center and to ensure its apps such as YouTube and Chrome are included in smartphones.

In the last year, Google has paid these partners $7.2bn, more than three times the comparable cost in 2012. Details of these financial arrangements are secret, but analysts think that the biggest culprit in the recent cost uptick is a revised agreement Google struck with Apple a couple of years ago. Analysts think this contract costs Google $3bn to $4bn a year, or perhaps much more.

Lately some Google watchers have said investors shouldn’t panic about the traffic fees. Baird recently estimated the growth rate of traffic acquisition costs is likely to ease off this year or in early 2018, in part because Google is past the worst of the cost increases from its revised Apple contract. 

But there’s another wild card that may push those costs up. European antitrust authorities are investigating whether Google’s arrangements with Android phone manufacturers and phone companies constitute an abuse of the company’s power. Companies enter these arrangements with Google voluntarily. But if manufacturers want to include some popular Google apps such as the Google Play app store, they are often required to take other Google apps, too, and set Google search as the default option.

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Notice two things this implies. First, that Apple gets half of the smartphone TAC, even though it has about a quarter of the installed base, and Android the remainder. Second, that Google’s TAC will rise if the EC forces Google to let Android OEMs install whatever they want and Google finds itself competing to have its app store and search prominently placed. The latter will hit its bottom line – possibly quite hard.
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Nokia plans to cut up to 310 jobs, halt VR camera development • Reuters

Jussi Rosendahl:

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Nokia plans to reduce up to 310 jobs from its Nokia Technologies unit and halt development of its virtual reality camera “OZO” and hardware, the Finnish company said on Tuesday.

The unit has about 1,090 employees and the potential cuts are expected to affect staff in Finland, the United States and Britain. Nokia employed about 102,000 employees as of end-June.

The unit will continue to focus on digital health and patent and brand licensing business, Nokia said.

“The slower-than-expected development of the VR market means that Nokia Technologies plans to reduce investments and focus more on technology licensing opportunities,” it said in a statement.

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In other news, IDC says the company sold a grand total of 1.5m Nokia-branded phones in the first half of 2017. Its new focus: “digital health” following its acquisition of Withings. Wish them luck.
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Who gets held accountable when a facial recognition algorithm fails? And how? • Medium

Ellen Broad:

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The Georgetown Law Center for Privacy and Technology in the US has estimated that half of all US adults — 112 million people — are already enrolled in unregulated facial recognition networks.
So maybe it’s too late to stop facial recognition happening. Let’s talk about how desperately facial recognition is in need of regulation instead.

We know facial recognition technology is capable of bias and error.

In the US, studies have shown that facial recognition algorithms are consistently less accurate identifying African American faces. Joy Buolamwini, an MIT Media Lab researcher, has talked eloquently about the challenges she faced getting a robot she trained using widely available facial recognition software to recognise her face. She’s black. Stories about facial recognition technology mistakenly identifying Asian faces as people blinking, tagging black people as primates and failing to register black faces in frame at all have gone viral.

There are a few reasons for these kinds of errors. Datasets used to train facial recognition algorithms might not have enough diverse faces within them. People designing the systems might inadvertently incorporate their own bias. Default camera settings don’t properly expose dark skin.

When we talk about using Australian driver’s licence photos to build a national facial recognition database, this potential for error matters.

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The future is tumbling towards us like the rock chasing Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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Regulate Facebook like AIM • Motherboard

Louise Matsakis:

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The FCC imposed the restrictions on AOL [forcing it to be interoperable with other instant messaging systems] because the merger with Time Warner created the largest biggest media business in the country. Government regulators feared that the behemoth would become a powerful monopoly, particularly when it came to instant messaging. At the time, AOL had over 140 million customers—or 90% of the market— using AIM as well as its other chat service, ICQ, combined.

The FCC’s decision to force AOL to remain open provides a blueprint for how the government could similarly regulate today’s gigantic internet platforms, like Facebook.

Stoller said you can look at Facebook—with its over 2 billion monthly users—as having egregious control over our relationships on the internet, or what he calls the “social grid.” If Facebook were forced to make room for other services on its platform in the same way AOL made room for other chat apps, new services could emerge.

“Facebook has to allow people to access their relationships however they want through other businesses or tools that are not controlled by Facebook,” Stoller said. “Having them control and mediate the structure of those relationships—that’s not right.”

Of course, people can opt out of Facebook and choose to use other, smaller social networks. But those businesses are essentially unable to thrive because of the hold Facebook has on how we communicate online.

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This is a good idea – though as Ben Thompson points out in his subscriber newsletter at Stratechery, the FCC ruling in fact said AIM had to be open if it added *new* features; it didn’t have to open up its existing features. What prevented AIM being dominant was the shift away from PCs, and the addition of new services which did things it couldn’t.
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37,000 Chrome users downloaded a fake Adblock Plus extension • Engadget

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If you use Adblock Plus with Chrome and downloaded the extension pretty recently, you may want to check what you’ve installed. Apparently, a fake Adblock Plus extension made it through Google’s verification process and lived in the official Chrome Web Store alongside the real one. Google has taken down the phony listing after SwiftOnSecurity tweeted about it and put the company on blast, but by then, it has already been up long enough to fool 37,000 people. That’s a drop in the bucket for a service that has 10 million users, but it sounds like trouble for those who were unlucky enough to download it.

SwiftOnSecurity says the fake extension was created by a “fraudulent developer who clones popular name and spams keywords.” Indeed, it’s pretty hard to tell that it’s fake, since its developer’s name is “Adblock Plus,” and it has a considerable number of reviews.

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Plastic-eating caterpillars could save the planet • The Economist

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Past attempts to use living organisms to get rid of plastics have not gone well. Even the most promising species, a bacterium called Nocardia asteroides, takes more than six months to obliterate a film of plastic a mere half millimetre thick. Judging by the job they had done on her bag, Dr Bertocchini suspected wax-moth caterpillars would perform much better than that.
To test this idea, she teamed up with Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe, two biochemists at Cambridge University. Dr Bombelli and Dr Howe pointed out that, like beeswax, many plastics are held together by methylene bridges (structures that consist of one carbon and two hydrogen atoms, with the carbon also linked to two other atoms). Few organisms have enzymes that can break such bridges, which is why these plastics are not normally biodegradable. The team suspected wax moths had cracked the problem.

One of the most persistent constituents of rubbish dumps is polyethylene, which is composed entirely of methylene bridges linked to one another. So it was on polyethylene that the trio concentrated. When they put wax-moth caterpillars onto the sort of film it had taken Nocardia asteroides half a year to deal with, they found that holes appeared in it within 40 minutes.

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Of course, this could also go horribly wrong, and we’d find ourselves trying to breed something to kill the caterpillars, and then something to kill that, and so on.
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Apple strikes deal with Spielberg’s Amblin for ‘Amazing Stories’ reboot • WSJ

Joe Flint and Tripp Mickle:

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The tech giant has struck a deal with Mr. Spielberg’s Amblin Television and Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal television production unit to make new episodes of “Amazing Stories,” a science fiction and horror anthology series that ran on NBC in the 1980s, according to people familiar with the matter.

The agreement between Apple, Amblin and NBCUniversal calls for 10 episodes of “Amazing Stories.” Mr. Spielberg will likely be an executive producer for new the version of the show, which he created, the people said.

The budget for “Amazing Stories” will be more than $5 million an episode, according to an executive involved in the project.

“Amazing Stories” is the first show to be greenlit by Apple since it poached Sony Corp.’s top Hollywood television executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht in June to help spearhead the tech company’s push into original programming.

Apple gave the duo, who helped produce “Breaking Bad,” a budget of roughly $1bn to develop original programming over the next year. They have also been tasked with building out a video strategy that is expected to include a streaming service that rivals Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and others.

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A billion dollars to develop original programming? Apple TV, the hardware, might seem like “a hobby” to some, but Apple is beginning to look serious about spending on TV content. However, TV series are notoriously hit-and-miss (hence the many pilots that appear on US TV every year, and the few that survive to be commissioned). That explains the taste for a “reboot” – hey, these people liked it when they were kids!
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