Start Up: Pichai interviewed, tracking Google’s ads, Amazon’s pensioner scheme, open data PDfs!, and more


The Pixel 2 XL’s screen is being criticised. Is that fair? Photo by portalgda on Flickr

Welcome! The Overspill is on holiday next week. You can refresh this page (or gaze at your inbox) but it won’t make it appear.

A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Everyone’s mad at Google and Sundar Pichai has to fix it • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Brad Stone:

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Pichai probably didn’t figure that defusing political and cultural grenades would be such a big part of the job. But while some critics charged that Google waffled on the issue and let it boil over into a PR nightmare, others saw a surer hand in Damore’s firing. Scott Galloway, a New York University professor and author of The Four, a critical book about big technology companies, compliments Pichai’s response. “It was a crisp, clear decision; he made it fast,” he says. “Google would be the scariest company in the world if you didn’t believe they had adult supervision.”

Pichai’s solution to the gnawing problems of fake news and illicit content that slip through Google artificial intelligence is, no surprise, more artificial intelligence. He thinks humans will succeed in training AI and that it’ll all be worth the effort. Like other technologists, he believes AI can do far more for both Google and the world, dramatically improving transportation, health care, agriculture, and any other field that uses computers. And he’s reshaped the company on the premise that the age of AI will usher in opportunities that dwarf even the size of the internet economy.

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A curiously unfocussed interview; there’s no core to it. They can’t seem to decide what, if any, theme there is about Google. Pixel launch? James Damore? Fake news? They don’t quite pin anything down.
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Debunking misinformation about the Pixel 2 XL’s display • Medium

Daniel Matte has long experience with displays of all varieties:

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There is nothing inherently bad about OLED color accuracy, period. The Phil Schiller keynote slide on OLED displays was 100% nonsense. In Apple’s defense, they were really talking about the quality of their competitors’ displays in general. The slide made it look like these were inherent OLED issues, which was extremely misleading to consumers. Companies try to sell you a product, not teach and inform.

OLED displays have been better than LCDs for the past few years. OLED has improved massively over many years but still has tons of issues. Both these sentences are true.

Samsung and Apple both always ship awesome displays. Google devices have had both good and bad displays over the years. I would strongly recommend not reflexively being biased towards any brand or product, though, if you actually want to understand the technology.

AnandTech has covered OLED displays in extreme depth over the years, so if you want to learn about OLED and all displays my highest recommendation would be to read their articles (you can search for various previous device reviews). You can also follow @nexusCFX on Twitter.

Android didn’t have color management until Oreo. Now it does. We’re good here. (There’s much more work still to be done for HDR support for Android P.)

Because they have color management (and other factors), both the new Pixels target the Display P3 color space (which is currently correct for “wide color”), not sRGB. Google’s marketing even says this. How good the specific panel calibrations turn out to be is a separate question. Vlad Savov’s review unit is clearly extremely green and looks awful. I won’t cover the work that needs to go into calibrating displays at the factory level here.

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New findings show Google organic clicks shifting to paid • Moz

Brian Wood:

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Looking at 2015 vs 2017 data for all keywords ranking organically on the first page, we’ve seen a dramatic change in CTR. Below we’ve normalized our actual CTR on a 1–10 scale, representing a total drop of 25% of click share on desktop and 55% on mobile.


Organic receives 25% less desktop CTR and 55% less mobile CTR compared to two years ago.

The much larger drop on mobile is particularly relevant because we’ve seen large traffic shifts to mobile over the last two years as well. The overall percentage drop plays out somewhat similarly across the first page of results; however, the top four were most heavily impacted…

…It’s important to note that paid ads are not getting all the clicks that organic is not. In addition to the small number of people who click beyond the first page, a surprising number do not click at all. Our best guess is that all ads combined now get about the same percentage of clicks (for our results) as all organic results combined.

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In other words, Google is stuffing its results page with ads. Another point: they’re seeing more and more Google Shopping ad clickthroughs.
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Edisun Microgrids – Series.c • SeedInvest

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At Edisun Microgrids, we believe solar can be a major source of the world’s energy because every day the sun provides more than 10,000 times the energy the world needs. The key is making solar cost-effective and available on-demand.  Edisun’s solutions address these hurdles and through them, we are aiming to drive down the cost of solar energy to make clean power more affordable than fossil fuels.

Our technology is a new solar tracking system named PV Booster™ that points solar panels directly at the sun all day long. By enabling the panels to continuously face the sun, PV Booster increases clean energy production by 30% and improves the economics of solar by 20%. We designed PV Booster to meet the unique needs of the underserved Commercial and Industrial (C&I) rooftop solar market – a trillion-dollar opportunity in the US alone.

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I don’t recommend investing in this; though it’s an attractive idea to make solar panels follow the sun, you’ll probably see improvements of 30% in output through general improvements over the next couple of years. Notable though that Bill Gross – who came up with the “ads against what you search for” model which Google adopted – is one of the investors. Gross is a smart guy. I still don’t recommend investing.
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Mr. Robot: This is how the hacks are created on the show • Verdict

Amelia Heathman:

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When you first meet Elliot Alderson, played by the enigmatic Rami Malek, in Mr Robot, he is explaining to a local café owner about how he hacked his laptop to find the huge swathes of child porn in his possession.

Before long, the viewer is taken down the cyber rabbit hole into an underground world featuring cyber terrorism, murder, and the failures of society, all presided over by Mr Robot.

Ahead of the premiere of season three tonight, Verdict spoke to one of the show’s technical consultants, Ryan Kazanciyan (left), chief security architect at security firm Tanium, about the Mr Robot hacks and how it is changing perceptions of hacking.

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Good points in particular about how hacking has become something we take as part of the landscape; it’s part of the zeitgeist.
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Facebook and Apple can’t agree on terms, so Facebook’s subscription tool will only launch on Android phones • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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Facebook’s effort to help media companies sell subscriptions has hit a snag: Apple.

The two companies are butting heads over Facebook’s plan for a new subscription tool in its mobile app. The tool will put paywalls around some articles in Facebook’s news feed, and then send users to publishers’ sites to buy subscriptions.

The issue: Apple wants to take as much as 30% of any subscription revenue Facebook helps generate. Facebook wants all of the money to go to publishers.

People familiar with both companies say they’ve been discussing the impasse for months. In the meantime, Facebook says it is rolling out a version of the subscription tool that will work on Android phones in the next few weeks; it says it will work with publishers including the Washington Post, Hearst and Tronc.

That tool will allow publishers to use two kinds of paywalls around “Instant Articles” that Facebook hosts on its mobile apps — a “metered” version, which turns on after Facebook users have read 10 of the publisher’s articles in a month, and a “freemium” version, where publishers can put paywalls around individual articles.

In both cases, users who hit the paywall will be sent to the publisher’s site to sign up for a subscription.

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Apple’s 30% thing is becoming quite the problem. I suspect it wants to do this through Apple News, not let Facebook get all the glory – and data.
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What is CamperForce? Amazon’s nomadic retiree army • WIRED

Jessica Bruder:

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Chuck [Stout] still remembers the call from Wells Fargo that brought the 2008 financial crisis crashing down on his head. He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on. “You have no more money,” he recalls his banker saying flatly. “What do you want us to do?” Unable to think of a better answer, Chuck told him, “Well, shove your foot up your ass.” Then he hung up.

Barb had lost her savings too, some $200,000 in investments. And with the travel industry flattened by the Great Recession, bookings at Carolina Adventure Tours dwindled. By the time Barb and Chuck got married in 2009, they were upside down on their mortgage and grappling with credit card debt.

The couple was facing bankruptcy, which scared Chuck to death. It brought back the terror of growing up poor—the pervasive insecurity he’d stamped out by going to work at 16. But by 2012, they had run out of options. After filing their papers, Chuck and Barb began liquidating their lives…

…Whatever survived the purge had to fit in their new dwelling: a 29-foot 1996 National RV Sea Breeze motor home, which Barb’s brother sold to them for $500. The rig had dry-rotted tires, a dead generator, and a leak in the gas line. Back when the Stouts had money, they’d idly fantasized about becoming carefree vagabonds in a nice RV. Their current situation didn’t quite align with that dream, but they embraced it anyway. Perhaps, Barb reflected, this was destiny—the universe pushing them toward the lifestyle they’d wanted all along. She decided to call their next move “Barb and Chuck’s Great Adventure.”

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Just as a story of middle America, this would be absorbing. And then Amazon arrives.
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Twitter was warned repeatedly about this fake account run by a Russian troll farm and refused to take it down • Buzzfeed

Kevin Collier:

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Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state’s real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake.

The account, @TEN_GOP, was enormously popular, amassing at least 136,000 followers between its creation in November 2015 and when Twitter shut it down in August, according to a snapshot of the account captured by the Internet Archive just before the account was “permanently suspended.”

Some of its tweets were deliberately outrageous, the archive shows, such as one in December 2016 that claimed that unarmed black men killed by police officers deserved their fate. It also trafficked in deliberate fake news, claiming just before it was shut down that a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship parade was actually a crowd waiting to hear Donald Trump speak.

Twitter, already under fire, along with Facebook, for being slow to recognize its role in Russian election meddling, declined to comment. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company does not comment on individual accounts.

@TEN_GOP gained enough support from the far right that when it was finally shut down, commentators like Reddit’s pro-Trump r/the_donald forum expressed outrage. Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump internet activist who himself has more than 213,000 Twitter followers, questioned the action when Twitter temporarily suspended the account in July.

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Posobiec then deleted every one of this tweets referring to that account after Buzzfeed approached him for this story.
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Apple Watch hits cellular snag in China • WSJ

Yang Jie and Yoko Kubota:

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For the first time, the Apple Watch can have an independent cellular connection, allowing people to use it to make voice calls, send and receive text and data even if the watch isn’t wirelessly connected to an iPhone.

But in China, the feature was abruptly cut off for new subscribers, without explanation, after a brief availability with one telecom company.

Industry analysts say the suspension likely stemmed from Chinese government security concerns to do with tracking users of the device, which uses different technology than standard mobile phones.

China strictly regulates mobile phones and all three major telecom service providers are state-owned companies. To get a SIM—subscriber identity module—card to operate the phone, users must register under their real names with a network carrier.

The latest Apple Watch poses a challenge to the existing user identification system, industry analysts said. The watch contains a new and tiny version of the SIM card, called embedded SIM, or eSIM. The eSIM is embedded in the watch by Apple, not by carriers.

The benefit of a device carrying an eSIM is that, with software, users can choose a telecom operator and a communications plan. But in China, that new system raises the question of how carriers and regulators can track the device user’s identity.

“The eSIM (system) isn’t mature enough yet in China,” one analyst said. “The government still needs to figure out how they can control the eSIM.”

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Just in case anyone needed a riposte to some of the articles that have been running suggesting China is a wonderful place to be.
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Trying to understand the hype around Google’s Pixel Buds • BirchTree

Matt Birchler on how Google-focussed outlets represent the new wireless (except for the wire) headphones:

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The Pixel buds are said to have better battery life than the competition because of the wired connection between the earbuds, but they have the exact same advertised life as the AirPods (5 hours, and 24 extra hours of charge in the case). He goes on to say the cost of the Pixel Buds is undercutting the competition. The Pixel Buds cost $159, which again is exactly the same as AirPods.

The Verge calls the Pixel Buds “more pragmatic” than AirPods. How, exactly? They cost the same, have the same battery life, seem to have lower build quality, and are not “truly” wireless headphones, but have a special integration into Google’s Translate app. The feature seems cool, but since you still need to unlock your phone, open the Google Translate app, select your languages, and the other person still has to hold a button and talk into your phone, I don’t see how this is a revolution in translation services.

As far as I can tell, Google’s “AI-powered headphones” (The Verge’s words, not mine) are no smarter than any other bluetooth headphones out there, and certainly not smarter than their main competitors, Apple’s AirPods. The Google Assistant and translation features are 100% run on the phone, just like AirPods, and the only difference is the audio is routed to the headphones, not your phone speakers. You know, exactly like you’d expect when having headphones connected to your phone…

…I’m prepared to be wrong about these, and maybe I’ll get a pair next year to try them out, but as of right now there seems to be a lot of buying into Google’s marketing jargon by many publications out there.

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I think it’s what people call “grading on a curve”. AirPods are truly the most Apple-y product in ages: the perfect integration of hardware and barely-visible software (which does plenty of heavy lifting, quietly).
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How gridlock, social media giants and the Clintons made the internet ripe for Russian meddling • Daily Beast

Lachlan Markay and Andrew Desiderio:

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[Marc] Elias [a Democratic lawyer who led Hillary Clinton’s team and found a way to coordinate with an in-theory-independent political ad group], indeed, is a recurring character in much of the drama that has led the social media political landscape to this current point. He also represented Google before the FEC in 2010 in what was the last instance of the FEC affirmatively ruling on a case involving the “small items” exemption for a major digital advertiser. In that case, Elias convinced the commission to exempt Google from disclosure rules as long as the pages to which its ads redirected did disclose who was behind them.

That case was specific to Google and did not establish broadly applicable rules for ad disclosure on social media, search engines, and similar platforms. The year after its Google ruling, the FEC opened up an initial comment period on such rules, but never ended up codifying them. It’s now reopened that comment period in what disclosure advocates hope will be an earnest effort to address the issue.

“That’s really the whole reason for campaign finance rules besides corruption and the like—but it is in part transparency so people can determine if there’s corruption, as well as just the ability to know who’s behind campaigns so they can make thoughtful decisions when they’re voting,” Ravel added. “All of these things are being done purposefully, in my view, to ultimately deregulate campaign finance completely.”

Divisions at the FEC remain deep, and the commission currently has just five members, meaning all but one of them would have to vote in favor of a regulatory proposal for it to go into effect.
A number of experts believe that Republican commissioner Matthew Peterson could rally a coalition to support a rule imposing additional disclosure requirements on digital political ads. But Trump has nominated Peterson to a federal judgeship, and it’s not likely that he’ll remain on the commission long enough to vote on a final rule.

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It all began, as the standfirst notes, with a blog years ago demanding Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Political ads in the US are a mess, disclosure-wise.
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Open Data Institute study shows role for PDF with Open Data • Public Policy blog by Adobe

John Joliffe is Adobe’s European Government Relations lead:

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Earlier this year we blogged about an exciting project we had kicked off with the Open Data Institute in London, to explore how PDF could be better used to help international policies on Open Data. The final ODI report on Best Practices for PDF and Data has just been published.

We’re particularly happy that the report confirms what we have known for some time, that PDF can already achieve at least 3 stars on the 5 Star Open Data scale, on a par with other well-used formats such as .csv. And it’s exciting to see a PDF with data published to Data Mill North, proving that PDF with data can be more valuable in some cases than just publishing the raw data itself.

We think the report will be welcome news for many in government and beyond who already work with PDF or who need to publish open data that is both human- and machine-readable,.

The report highlights two use cases in particular: the first relating to the role of PDF in the English Planning system, which was conducted in collaboration with the Department for Communities and Local Government. The second relating to the complex needs of scientific publishers.

But the work is only just beginning. The ODI has kicked off a public process to capture additional use cases where PDF is essential, with a view to showing how PDF can address their open data needs too.

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I know that the idea that a PDF could be as machine-readable as a CSV (comma-separated variables) file sounds like nonsense. But Tom Forth has been doing work on creating PDFs which contain the data files as attachments. He has built an open-source tool which lets you add and remove them. TYou can have something human-legible which also has the data onboard. That’s useful.

It’s also a potential security threat, I’d guess, but that’s how this stuff rolls: one step forward, half a step back.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: in case you missed the warning up above, The Overspill is on holiday next week. So this is a sort of pre-emptive corrigenda.

2 thoughts on “Start Up: Pichai interviewed, tracking Google’s ads, Amazon’s pensioner scheme, open data PDfs!, and more

  1. I’m amazed at PDF’s ability to sneak everywhere. For some reason my sister emails me pics as .pdf, not .jpg. Most of the PDFs I read would work just as well as .html or .rtf, if not .txt… shows th epower of marketing I guess, nobody has a stake in promoting free/open stuff.

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