Start Up: how Hey Siri works, SolarCity boondoggle?, Puerto Rico’s bust grid, and more

Until yesterday, AlphaGo was the best known Go player on the planet. No longer. Photo by kenming_wang on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hey Siri: an on-device DNN-powered voice trigger for Apple’s personal assistant • Apple

“Siri Team”:


The “Hey Siri” feature allows users to invoke Siri hands-free. A very small speech recognizer runs all the time and listens for just those two words. When it detects “Hey Siri”, the rest of Siri parses the following speech as a command or query. The “Hey Siri” detector uses a Deep Neural Network (DNN) to convert the acoustic pattern of your voice at each instant into a probability distribution over speech sounds. It then uses a temporal integration process to compute a confidence score that the phrase you uttered was “Hey Siri”. If the score is high enough, Siri wakes up. This article takes a look at the underlying technology. It is aimed primarily at readers who know something of machine learning but less about speech recognition.


Some interesting detail here about battery use, especially on the Watch. Something of a contrast with Google’s offering today. Different challenges: one about rulespace, one about power constraint.
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SolarCity: Tesla’s solar boondoggle •

Travis Hoium:


Tesla’s $2.6bn acquisition of SolarCity was supposed to create a vertically integrated clean energy company. But since the buyout Tesla has been shutting down SolarCity’s operations around the country. This month, Tesla will lay off about 200 workers in a Roseville, California operations center that was once a hub for SolarCity. This is on top of thousands of layoffs over the past year. 

Elon Musk has argued that the best solar strategy is to sell solar in stores, getting EV buyers to pick up a solar system along the way. But Tesla has barely rolled out solar sales in-store across the country and it’s not clear the new retail strategy will result in anywhere near the sales SolarCity made on its own. 

The main thing SolarCity had going for it was a massive sales and installation organization. A vast majority of employees worked in these roles and they’re the ones responsible for growing the company into a nationwide organization. 

If Tesla’s vision was to move solar sales from the SolarCity sales staff to its own stores then why buy SolarCity at all? And if you’re selling solar systems in a store, why buy a company with thousands of its own installers? Why not use a contracted installer like Home Depot or Lowe’s does to install the kitchen counters they sell in-store? 


Solar isn’t a self-fit. It’s too complex. In a way, it’s the modern form of the alumin(i)um sidings business captured in the film Tin Men. Except it really does help.
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Why Puerto Rico’s electric grid stood no chance against Maria • FiveThirtyEight

Maggie Koerth-Baker:


Being an island has also, historically, limited the types of energy resources Puerto Rico could use and raised their cost. The island’s electricity is almost entirely generated by burning fossil fuels, mostly oil — and all of that fuel has to be imported. When the cost of oil goes up, so do electric bills. Even if you burn natural gas — which is a cheaper energy source than coal or oil — that still costs more when you have to haul it across an ocean. Until 2012, the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica didn’t have facilities that could burn natural gas, anyway.

All of this helps to explain why Puerto Rico’s grid was in such bad shape before Maria hit — and why it will take so long to rebuild. The AEE has long been under political pressure to not raise prices, said José Román Morales, interim president of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, a government body formed in 2014 as a regulator for the AEE and private electric generation companies. That made sense in some ways: Electricity is crucial, and Puerto Ricans, in general, don’t have a lot of spare cash — the median income is just $19,350, and more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

But those pressures, combined with the realities of running an electric grid on an island, created problems. The AEE didn’t raise its base rate — the part of the electric bill that’s meant to cover basic operating costs and maintenance — between 1989 and January 2017. But the price consumers actually pay — the total bill — still went up over that time period because of rising fuel prices. Puerto Ricans became trapped in a feedback loop where the AEE had less and less money to keep the grid working well, but consumers had more and more reason (from their perspective) to demand that the agency not raise rates.


And it got worse. Another problem: solar fields and wind turbines don’t fare well in hurricanes. (Would some sort of tidal barrier work better?)
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AlphaGo Zero: learning from scratch • DeepMind

Demis Hassabis and David Silver:


The paper introduces AlphaGo Zero, the latest evolution of AlphaGo, the first computer program to defeat a world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go. Zero is even more powerful and is arguably the strongest Go player in history.

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

This updated neural network is then recombined with the search algorithm to create a new, stronger version of AlphaGo Zero, and the process begins again. In each iteration, the performance of the system improves by a small amount, and the quality of the self-play games increases, leading to more and more accurate neural networks and ever stronger versions of AlphaGo Zero.


This is mindblowing. OK, a limited rulespace – Go has fewer than most serious games – but utterly incredible to create the best Go player ever.

Though I was watching The Incredibles on Wednesday, where Mr Incredible is used to train better and better Omnidroids until it can kill him. It always feels like a subtle warning.
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Crafty app developers are ripping off big-name brands • The Economist


Some apps fill a gap in the market. Selfridges, a chain of British fashion stores, for instance, has a legitimate app for Apple devices but not for Android ones. RadioShack, an American electronics retailer that filed for bankruptcy in February 2015, has a website but not an official app. Three imitation apps have by now sprouted under the shop’s name.

Other developers simply copy an existing app and hope users will fail to notice. The Economist found that half of the 50 top-selling apps in Google Play had fakes. These included ones with tweaked names (“MyGoogleTranslate” rather than “Google Translate”) and a bogus Netflix app that uses a weird Halloween-themed font for the logo. Google says it is reviewing these apps and will take action where necessary.

Fake apps are often stuffed with malicious code. Academics from a research group, SerVal, at the University of Luxembourg, estimate that around a fifth of all Android app-based malware is hidden in fake apps. The malware facilitates various money-making schemes. The most egregious are designed to steal the passwords that unlock users’ bank accounts. But it is more common for scams to profit from ordinary advertising, particularly on Android devices, says Eliran Sapir of Apptopia, a tech firm. Adverts in the smartphone’s web browser get quietly replaced by similar ones chosen by the fake-app developer.


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Ad industry insiders profited from an ad fraud scheme that researchers say stole millions • Buzzfeed

Craig Silverman:


Some of the world’s biggest brands were ripped off by a digital fraud scheme that used a network of websites connected to US advertising industry insiders to steal what experts say could be millions of dollars, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.

Approximately 40 websites used special code that triggered an avalanche of fraudulent views of video ads from companies such as P&G, Unilever, Hershey’s, Johnson & Johnson, Ford, and MGM, according to data gathered by ad fraud investigation firm Social Puncher in collaboration with BuzzFeed News. Over 100 brands saw their ads fraudulently displayed on the sites, and roughly 50 brands appeared multiple times.

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that the CEO of an ad platform and digital marketing agency is an owner of 12 websites that earned revenue from the fraudulent views, and his company provided the ad platform used by sites in the scheme. Another key player is a former employee of a large ad network who runs a group of eight sites that were part of the fraud, and who consults for a company with another eight sites in it. That company is owned by a model and online entrepreneur who played Bob Saget’s girlfriend on the HBO show Entourage. A final site researchers identified in the scheme is owned by the cofounder of one of the 20 largest ad networks in the United States.


I keep thinking that (a) this is the tip of the iceberg (b) this time it will lead the online ad industry to clean up its act. The second one never happens. But the iceberg seems bigger and bigger.
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Watchdog slams HMRC, Amazon over ‘dismal’ response to UK biz hurt by online VAT fraud • The Register

Kat Hall:


HMRC, Amazon and eBay have not done enough to crack down on overseas sellers evading VAT in the UK, a “dismal” failure that has hit British businesses hard, the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee said today.

The select committee’s report, Tackling online VAT fraud and error, warned that online sellers who do not charge VAT when using online marketplaces are undercutting prices offered by UK businesses by up to 20%, “forcing many to lay off staff or even go out of business”.

HMRC estimates that UK taxpayers lost up to £1.5bn in 2015-16 from online VAT fraud. But the committee said the taxman’s estimate of the full impact of fraud is “out of date and flawed”.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said the response of HMRC and the marketplaces where fraudsters operate “has been dismal.”

…All online marketplaces should force non-EU traders selling goods to customers in the UK to display a valid VAT number. ”In the absence of a legal requirement to do so we would expect online marketplaces to implement this measure voluntarily,” it said.

As The Register has previously reported, goods sold via online marketplaces are in many cases held in warehouse “fulfilment centres” physically based in the UK. However, HMRC does not know how many fulfilment houses there are in the UK, estimating the number to be somewhere between 500 and 3,000.


Not a trivial amount in these days of austerity.
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Google serves fake news ads in an unlikely place: fact-checking sites • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Linda Qiu:


The fake news ads all worked the same way: They would display headlines at the top of the fact-checking sites that, once clicked, took readers to sites that mimicked the logos and page designs of legitimate publications. The fake stories began with headlines and large photos of the celebrities in question, but after a few sentences, they transitioned into an ad for an anti-aging skin cream.

The fake publishers used Google’s AdWords system to place the advertisements on websites that fit their broad parameters, though it’s unclear if they specifically targeted the fact-checking sites. But that Google’s systems were able to place fake news ads on websites dedicated to truth-squadding reflects how the internet search giant continues to be used to spread misinformation. The issue has been in the spotlight for many internet companies, with Facebook, Twitter and Google all under scrutiny for how their automated ad systems may have been harnessed by Russians to spread divisive, false and inflammatory messages.

The Snopes and PolitiFact ads show how broad the problem of online misinformation can be, said David Letzler, research scientist at Impact Radius, a digital marketing intelligence firm. “Even websites whose mission is to promote accountability can inadvertently wind up getting used by snake oil salesmen,” he said.


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Facebook and Google helped anti-refugee campaign in swing states • Bloomberg

Benjamin Elgin and Vernon Silver:


In the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign, voters in swing states including Nevada and North Carolina saw ads appear in their Facebook feeds and on Google websites touting a pair of controversial faux-tourism videos, showing France and Germany overrun by Sharia law. French schoolchildren were being trained to fight for the caliphate, jihadi fighters were celebrated at the Arc de Triomphe, and the “Mona Lisa” was covered in a burka.

“Under Sharia law, you can enjoy everything the Islamic State of France has to offer, as long as you follow the rules,” intoned the narrator of one ad.

Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google. They helped target the ads to more efficiently reach the intended audiences, according to internal reports from the ad agency that ran the campaign, as well as five people involved with the efforts.


Completely legal. Except the content isn’t true. But it’s all money. Who’s going to complain about that?

Every day brings more data about how Trump’s narrow electoral college victory – a smattering of votes in a few states – was enabled by the narrow targeting of untruths. It’s a victory built on the abuse of the new technology. I imagine the same was said about the first TV political ads; except everyone could see those. With these ads, we don’t know who sees them.
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Google Pixel 2 XL review: A conflicted second coming • Pocket-lint

Chris Hall on the LG-made larger Google phone with its strangely tuned p-OLED display:


all eyes will be drawn to the colour balance on that display. Daily use feels lacklustre: the app icons just don’t look like the right tone and showing the phone to people they immediately assume you’re on battery saving mode or night light, when you’re not. That’s not an experience you get when watching movies where things are much better, although that’s an experience you’ll have to hunt for.

The result is that the Pixel 2 XL feels like a device that hasn’t quite delivered. It’s a twist in design that’s not as effective as others, the screen doesn’t look great and a camera that, although clever, only really keeps pace with others on the market. For an Android fan that’s likely to be a disappointment: the Pixel 2 XL was supposed to be the device to fend off the iPhone X. As it is, it doesn’t feel like it’s a strong enough rival.

That makes it hard to highly recommend the Pixel 2 XL, not at its £799 asking price.


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The war to sell you a mattress is an internet nightmare • Fast Company

David Zax:


“Casper Sues Sleepopolis with Federal Lawsuit,” read the headline on the page I opened. The post was written by a guy named Derek Hales, the site’s proprietor. Derek’s photo showed a pale, skinny twentysomething with freckles and short red hair. I clicked around on his site. Derek Hales evidently took mattress reviewing seriously, rating the firmness of mattresses on a scale from one to 10, cutting them open to measure the exact thickness of the foam.

I returned to the page outlining the lawsuit.

“From the very first day Sleepopolis launched I knew I wanted to build something different,” wrote Derek. “Reviews rooted in honesty, transparency, integrity, and clarity, without the marketing speak or fluff. Guided by these principles I feel like Sleepopolis readers have the right to know that Casper Sleep has filed a federal lawsuit in New York, suing both Sleepopolis and me, personally.”

So it was true. I scratched my head. Casper was on its way to becoming a $750m company. It was the hottest of the bed-in-a-box disruptors, with investments from celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Nas. And it was picking on some skinny blogger from Arizona?


This is your compulsory long read for today. Read it, and consider how many other sites might have been subverted in just the same way as happens in this story.

It’s also a terrific piece of journalism.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: email subscribers won’t have received Tuesday’s edition due to WordPress’s interface. (OK, I missed a tick off a box.) It’s here, if you missed it.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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