Start Up: Google + Facebook + Twitter v chaos, US phone tracking, get sorted!, and more

USB-C from USB-A: where did it all go wrong? Photo by sniggie on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter need a new approach to tackling chaos • WIRED

Karen Wickre:


As the October 1 massacre in Las Vegas unfolded, Google displayed “news” results from rumor mills like 4Chan, and Facebook promulgated rumors and conspiracy theories, sullying the service on which, according to Pew Research, 45% of American adults get their news. Meanwhile, the rapid-fire nature of Twitter led users to pass along false information about missing people in the aftermath.
All of these cases signify the central place a number of digital services have staked out in our lives. We trust our devices: We trust them to surface the correct sources in our information feeds, we trust them to deliver our news, and we trust them to surface the opinions of our friends. So the biggest and most influential platforms falling prey to manipulations upsets that trust—and the order of things.

It’s hard to square the global power, reach, and ubiquity of these massive platforms with their youth: Google just turned 19. Facebook is 13. Twitter is 11 and a half. (None, in other words, out of their teens!) Until recently, widespread digital malfeasance was relatively rare on these young platforms. But in a world that increasingly seems dystopian, we now expect security breaches, hacks, purposeful fakery— all of it more or less constantly across the online services and tools we use. Whether the aim is financial, political, or even just hacking for hacking’s sake, the fact that so many of us live and work online means we are, collectively, an attractive and very large target.


link to this extract

Fixing Twitter: why Twitter is broken and why reputation systems can help (part 1 of 2) • Chuq Von Rospach

von Rospach has handled lots of communities – first at Apple, then at Palm:


Ultimately the problem at Twitter is a policy problem and a community management problem, which is why it’s been of interest to me. The first challenge of community management is that it doesn’t scale well. A community manager can handle a small group — depending on the population into a few tens of thousands — successfully, but as the group continues to grow the ability to cover it well and consistently becomes a challenge.

Now, grow that problem from tens of thousands to tens or hundreds of millions. You literally couldn’t hire enough talent to cover a community that size the way you would a smaller one. Youtube has 300 hours of video uploaded to it per minute. Stop and imagine the scale of a group charged to review and approve that content.

So you can’t hire your way out of the problem. You need technology. Technology pushes us in the other direction, though, where companies become overly reliant on algorithms to solve the problem. A good example of this kind of thinking is the most recent complaint about Facebook where it was found people could target ads to groups like “Jew Hater”. Facebook’s answer to this? More human oversight. Where did this problem come from? Building a system that assumed that the technology would prevent problems. Which it did: only it can only solve problems the humans know to program it for, and this wasn’t one of them.

So the answer to solving these problems is to use technology to amplify and leverage a human component.

My tool of choice? A reputation system driven by a Machine Learning setup…

…A quick digression on this challenge: back when I was working as Community Manager at Palm, I went to a meeting with a product manager to talk about proposed pages to the App Store. Her proposal was to add buttons for people to report apps that were abusive or contained inappropriate materials. Her plan was if we got those reports, those apps would be pulled from the store for evaluation.

My first question to her was “How do you think this will work when developers start flagging their competitors to get them pulled from the store?” And her response was simply “They’d do that?”

That was, I think, the moment I realized I needed to leave Palm. And here’s an important hint for success: don’t let people who aren’t community users and managers design your communities. Bad things will happen.


Read the second part too.
link to this extract

Qualcomm seeks China iPhone ban, expanding Apple legal fight • Bloomberg

Ian King:


Qualcomm’s suits are based on three non-standard essential patents, it said. They cover power management and a touch-screen technology called Force Touch that Apple uses in current iPhones, Qualcomm said. The inventions “are a few examples of the many Qualcomm technologies that Apple uses to improve its devices and increase its profits,” Trimble said.

Apple said the claim has no merit. “In our many years of ongoing negotiations with Qualcomm, these patents have never been discussed,” said Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock. “Like their other courtroom maneuvers, we believe this latest legal effort will fail.”

Qualcomm made the filings at the Beijing court on Sept. 29. The court has not yet made them public.

“This is another step to get Apple back to the negotiating table,” said Mike Walkley, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Inc. “It shows how far apart they are.”

There’s little or no precedent for a Chinese court taking such action at the request of a U.S. company, he said. Chinese regulators would also be concerned that a halt of iPhone production would cause layoffs at Apple’s suppliers such as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., which are major employers.


Not quite sure how Qualcomm can claim that Force Touch touches (aha) its patents – if that were the case wouldn’t more non-Apple phones use it? And it seems like an odd time to notice this, two years after it was introduced. But everyone reckons that if Apple loses this case, it’ll settle at once.
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Want to see something crazy? Open this link on your phone with WiFi turned off • Medium

Philip Neustrom:


Want to see something crazy? Open this link on your phone with WiFi turned off:

Click “Begin,” enter the ZIP code and then click “See Underlying Data.”

What you should see is your home address, phone number, cell phone contract details, and — depending on what kind of cell phone towers you’re currently connected to — a latitude and longitude describing the current location of your cell phone…

…In 2003, news came to light that AT&T was providing the DEA and other law enforcement agencies with no-court-warrant-required access to real time cell phone metadata. This was a pretty big deal at the time.

But what these services show us is even more alarming: US telcos appear to be selling direct, non-anonymized, real-time access to consumer telephone data to third party services — not just federal law enforcement officials — who are then selling access to that data.

Given the trivial “consent” step required by these services and unlikely audit controls, it appears that these services could be used to track or de-anonymize nearly anyone with a cell phone in the United States with potentially no oversight.


I haven’t confirmed that this works (because I’m not in the US). But others are very worried by it.
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After second bungle, IRS suspends Equifax’s “taxpayer identity” contract • Ars Technica UK

David Kravets:


Last week we brought news that the Internal Revenue Service awarded a $7.2m contract to Equifax to allow Equifax to “verify taxpayer identity.” The contract was awarded days after Equifax announced it had exposed the personal data, including Social Security numbers, of about 145 million people.

The tax-collecting agency is now temporarily suspending the contract because of another Equifax snafu. The Equifax site was maliciously manipulated again, this time to deliver fraudulent Adobe Flash updates, which, when clicked, infected visitors’ computers with adware that was detected by just three of 65 antivirus providers. The development means that at least for now, taxpayers cannot open new Secure Access accounts with the IRS. Secure Access allows taxpayers to retrieve various online tax records and provides other “tax account tools” to those who have signed up.

An “alert” on the IRS website says the Secure Access service “is unavailable for new users at this time.” The alert notes that taxpayers who already have an account can “continue the login process.”

The message ends by saying “We apologize for any inconvenience.”


Equifax might begin to suffer death by a thousand cuts if stuff like this continues. At the very least, it’s a toxic brand right now for consumers.
link to this extract

The impossible dream of USB-C •

Marco Arment:


I love the idea of USB-C: one port and one cable that can replace all other ports and cables. It sounds so simple, straightforward, and unified.

In practice, it’s not even close.

USB-C normally transfers data by the USB protocol, but it also supports Thunderbolt… sometimes. The 12-inch MacBook has a USB-C port, but it doesn’t support Thunderbolt at all. All other modern MacBook models support Thunderbolt over their USB-C ports… but if you have a 13-inch model, and it has a Touch Bar, then the right-side ports don’t have full Thunderbolt bandwidth.

If you bought a USB-C cable, it might support Thunderbolt, or it might not. There’s no way to tell by looking at it. There’s usually no way to tell whether a given USB-C device requires Thunderbolt, either — you just need to plug it in and see if it works.


And he hasn’t even got onto power charging yet. USB-C is a hot mess, and quite how it got into this hot mess is surely an object lesson in how not to design “standards”.
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Sorting visualizations album • Imgur

The fabulously named Fishy McFishFace provides visual illustrations of a number of the different sorting algorithms in broad use in computing:


First up: Bubble Sort
Generally one of the very first algorithms learned when you’re introduced to this stuff in programming classes. Bubble sort finds the largest value in a set and “bubbles” it to the top. For this visualization, that’s the far right side. Everything further along the line than that value gets shifted down one spot, and then the algorithm goes back to the start and finds the next largest value to put at the end of what’s left. You can see the unsorted portion slowly being shifted down to the left, one iteration at a time, while the completely sorted portion grows from the right.


also includes Cocktail Sort, Radix Sort, Quick Sort, Insertion Sort and many more. (Via Sophie Warne’s Fiar Warning newsletter. The visuals for each one are amazing; one starts guessing which is the fastest. You should sign up.)
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A new iPhone X feature was just discovered and it’s sheer brilliance • BGR

Zach Epstein:


Apple really had to get creative to manage an iPhone X design that is almost all screen. In fact, a number of the company’s solutions to various design problems are strokes of brilliance. The perfect example is the way Apple manage to eliminate the bottom bezel that’s present on every other smartphone on the market. This bezel exists because there’s a display controller component at the bottom of every screen, and displays won’t function without them.

So how did Apple do it? Check out this image:

Apple used flexible display panels in the iPhone X so that it could fold the bottom of the screen underneath itself. This way, the display controller is actually positioned behind the screen itself, rather than behind a bottom bezel.


It’s very clever. All the talk about “flexible displays”, and Apple actually gets on and uses it. (Samsung hasn’t got rid of the bottom bezel, despite inventing this technology.)

The BGR story also discovers something it claims was “just uncovered” by Phone Arena – that notifications on the iPhone X lockscreen are only shown in full to the person whose face unlocks the screen. It’s neat, true, but it was being demonstrated when the phones were unveiled.
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Following heavy criticism, OnePlus makes changes to its data collection policy • AndroidAuthority

Brian Reigh:


the company’s co-founder has taken to the official OnePlus forum to address some of the concerns. Specifically, Carl Pei says that there will be some much-needed changes in how the company collects user data in the future:


By the end of October, all OnePlus phones running OxygenOS will have a prompt in the setup wizard that asks users if they want to join our user experience program. The setup wizard will clearly indicate that the program collects usage analytics. In addition, we will include a terms of service agreement that further explains our analytics collection. We would also like to share we will no longer be collecting telephone numbers, MAC Addresses and WiFi information.


Pei emphasizes again that for existing users, usage analytics collection can be turned off by going into Settings – Advanced – Join user experience program. For new users, you will have the option to disable it during the initial setup.

Not to condone the company’s unauthorized collection of personal data, but information like reboot and charging timestamps could be useful for “after-sales support” indeed. However, I can’t help but conclude that the collection of phone numbers, MAC addresses, and Wi-Fi information was, plainly put, gross misconduct on the company’s part. And Pei’s simply stating that the company would stop collecting the said data from now on doesn’t absolve him from his duty owed to consumers to explain why it was necessary in the first place.


Reigh has said it all. Just stop collecting this data now.
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Google is permanently removing Home Mini’s top touch functionality due to always-recording bug • 9to5Google

Justin Duino:


On October 10, Google confirmed that one of the Home Mini’s features — the ability to trigger Assistant by tapping on the top of the speaker — was defective on a select number of units. As the bug was causing the smart speaker to essentially listen and record its surroundings 24/7, Google quickly pushed out an update to disable this feature.

Google has now reached out to let us know that it has permanently removed the Assistant-specific touch functionality and will not bring it back…


We take user privacy and product quality concerns very seriously. Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using Google Home Mini.

We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying “Ok Google” or “Hey Google,” which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products. You can still adjust the volume by using the touch control on the side of the device.



This stemmed from the experience of Artem Russakovskii of Android Police, as noted here last week. Google should probably be glad he discovered it: imagine the outcry if it had gone into full production with this happening.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: Google + Facebook + Twitter v chaos, US phone tracking, get sorted!, and more

  1. That trick to see what cellphone data your provider can see doesn’t work with t-mobile. You get a page not found message on the t-mobile website when you try it.

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