Start Up: Lenovo’s PC problem, Bin Laden’s computer, Russian DNC hackers tracked, and more


This one wasn’t, but some would-be novels have had the first lines written by an AI. The results are.. different. Photo by sights set on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Also: Friday (day may vary according to location). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Software matters in the world – Fog Creek Software • Medium

Anil Dash:

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When our company, Fog Creek Software, was started as a little indie firm way back in 2000, we mostly saw bugs that way, too. We made a bug-tracking app and tried to help people make sure they were fixing what was wrong in their software.

While that was happening, our cofounder Joel Spolsky also wrote a lot about the culture of making software. Back then, at the height of the dot-com boom, it was seen as a bit eccentric to put as much focus on the human factors and ethical behavior as our founders did. But it helped us win fans, and some of those people tried out the various apps we built along the years, and we’ve been lucky to keep thriving as what feels like one of the last few independent tech companies that’s still relevant.

But we missed something important, too. Those ideas and insights about how to treat people, how to listen to customers (and to communities), and how to be thoughtful and responsible in creating technology were even more important than anything we built into our software. They were the first steps to trying to fix what we could now think of as “Big Bugs”. Little bugs were mistakes in the software. Big Bugs are when we exacerbate (or cause!) major problems in society.

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link to this extract


Stop being so PC, Lenovo • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tim Culpan is pretty salty about Lenovo’s results and acquisition of 51% in Fujitsu’s PC business:

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Apparently that loss on previous acquisitions wasn’t a lesson for the board, because they’ve just doubled down on PCs to the tune of at least 20.4bn yen ($179m), and as much as 30.7bn yen. The deal sees them join with with Fujitsu and Development Bank of Japan Inc., which will hold a 5% stake.

The joint venture will focus on the research, development, design, manufacturing and sales of client computing devices for the global PC market.

Spare me (and your shareholders)! Lenovo investing even more money in an anemic business is folly, and dressing it up as R&D looks like it might be intended to fool us.

I get why they want to go deeper into client computing: It’s the only division that’s capable of showing consistent growth and profitability. But we all know that this is an unhealthy addiction, because in the long term PCs are a dying business. Lenovo may be staying there because of old habits, or perhaps is driven by a need to report profits to shareholders every quarter; Lenovo’s client computing division remains the only unit capable of delivering profits.

This won’t be an easy addiction to kick. At least one rival, Dell Inc., went cold turkey and is trying to wean itself off the quarterly treadmill. Others have pivoted away from client devices.

A decade from now, Lenovo won’t be predominantly a PC company, because it will have shifted focus, or succumbed. It should start that process now, while it can.

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It has lost money in smartphone for 15 straight quarters, and I can’t find evidence of its tablets making money. PCs are all it has.
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15 things we learned from the tech giants at the Senate hearings • The Atlantic

Alexis Madrigal:

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During three Congressional hearings spread over two days, we heard a lot of bluster from senators and pat answers from tech-company lawyers about the role their firms played in the 2016 election.

Scattered among all the questions, some new facts entered the public record. Here we attempt to catalog the important new information we learned. Some of the biggest disclosures came in the prepared testimony from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as in the introduction from the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina and Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.

1. Russian electoral disinformation reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million on Instagram. That’s 146 million total.

These topline numbers keep going up, and we hadn’t known that the influence campaign extended to Instagram. This information seems to have only reached the Senate committee in the last couple of days.

2. Most Russian advertising on Facebook was used to build up pages, which then distributed their content “organically.”

The $100,000 of advertising that has been a big focus of Congressional interest was used primarily to build audiences for a variety of Russian-linked pages. In other words, they paid to buy likes and build the distribution channels through which they would pump disinformation.

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And plenty more like it.
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Osama bin Laden’s compound computers held crochet lessons, viral YouTube videos, and sexy video games • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The CIA-hosted archive includes hundreds of gigabytes’ worth of files, but its title indexes — for audio, documents, video, and images — are a lot more manageable. Agency director Mike Pompeo, who authorized their release, says the collection “provides the opportunity for the American people to gain further insights into the plans and workings” of al-Qaeda.

In addition to a mass of basic operating system elements and clearly terrorism-related material, they reveal some odd details about compound residents’ media diets. There are a few big-name films like Antz, Cars, and Resident Evil, which the CIA has withheld (alongside less prominent copyrighted videos) in case someone was planning to download a 174GB file to fish around for pirated media.

But beyond that, you can also find listings for a downloaded copy of the super-popular YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger;” as well as a video file called “Loosechange2” — likely a copy of the second edition of Loose Change, which argues that the September 11th attacks were masterminded by the American government, not bin Laden. You can even find a wealth of videos on crocheting baskets, baby socks, and beanie caps, among other things.

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I guess that kills the stories about them not having really kill OBL. Or, um, maybe it doesn’t. Also includes Illuminati conspiracy theories. Guess it got boring there in Abbotabad. A marvellous resource for academics.
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Prosecutors consider bringing charges in DNC hacking case • WSJ

Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber:

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The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said. Discussions about the case are in the early stages, they said.

If filed, the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion. US intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven’t provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved.

The high-profile hack of the DNC’s computers played a central role in the US intelligence community’s assessment in January that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” Mr. Putin and the Russian government have denied meddling in the US election.

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There’s a sort of quiet war going on between the WSJ’s reporters and its editor. This story won’t get much – if any – coverage on Fox News, which has consistently run with a wild story about an insider hack. All the evidence anyone can gather suggests it wasn’t.
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Russia hackers had targets worldwide, beyond US election • Associated Press

Raphael Satter, Jeff Donn and Justin Myers:

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The hackers who disrupted the U.S. presidential election had ambitions well beyond Hillary Clinton’s campaign, targeting the emails of Ukrainian officers, Russian opposition figures, US defense contractors and thousands of others of interest to the Kremlin, according to a previously unpublished digital hit list obtained by The Associated Press.

The list provides the most detailed forensic evidence yet of the close alignment between the hackers and the Russian government, exposing an operation that stretched back years and tried to break into the inboxes of 4,700 GMail users across the globe — from the pope’s representative in Kiev to the punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow.

“It’s a wish list of who you’d want to target to further Russian interests,” said Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, and one of five outside experts who reviewed the AP’s findings. He said the data was “a master list of individuals whom Russia would like to spy on, embarrass, discredit or silence.”

…In the United States, which was Russia’s Cold War rival, Fancy Bear tried to pry open at least 573 inboxes belonging to those in the top echelons of the country’s diplomatic and security services: then-Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

The list skewed toward workers for defense contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or senior intelligence figures, prominent Russia watchers and — especially — Democrats.

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List gathered by the security company Secureworks, covering the March 2015 – May 2016 period.
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How the National Enquirer saw Donald Trump would get elected – Popbitch

A magnum opus on how the National Enquirer rose on the back of Mafia money (and Trump’s friend Roy Cohn) and then moved to Florida, and was doing down Trump’s opponents during the primaries in 2016 with exactly the electorate who would decide the election:

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We started this whole story by pointing out that the non-profit organisation Leaders In Further Education (LIFE) had cancelled their proposed annual gala at Mar-A-Lago, and suggested that that could prove to be disastrous for Donald Trump’s presidency. Worse than his dismal approval ratings. Worse than the Russia investigation. Worse than any of the day-to-day setbacks and scandals he seems to be constantly embroiled with.

Why? Because the CEO and Chairwoman of LIFE is Lois Pope.

Maybe you remember her. We briefly alluded to her in Part Three. She’s the widow and executor of Generoso Pope Junior’s estate: the woman who sold the National Enquirer to form American Media, Inc. Now, to be crystal clear, it’s important to note that Lois Pope has never had an editorial position on the Enquirer, nor has she had any say in its corporate management since it was sold in 1988. She is in no way one of the Machiavellian puppetmasters of this operation.

And that’s exactly what makes her so useful.

Lois Pope is about the best canary we could possibly hope for in this coalmine. A Trump loyalist. A Florida resident. A mover in Tabloid Triangle society, married to the man who effectively created the industry. She lived and breathed this entire world every day for 35 years. She is about as tuned in to this whole scene as any person could possibly be – without actually being an integral part of it.

She is also a woman who has hosted more than twenty galas at Mar-A-Lago. At least two of them since Trump first said that Mexicans are rapists and murders (and some, we assume, are good people).

If even someone like Lois Pope has apparently given up hope with him, then it could be catastrophically bad news for Trump. As a barometer for what the Enquiring Mind is thinking, there are worse people to take under consideration than Gene Pope’s own wife.

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A long read for you, but this is the kicker.
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Mexico resort blackouts: TripAdvisor blocked warnings, tourists say • Journal Sentinel

Raquel Rutledge and Andrew Mollica:

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Since July, when the Journal Sentinel began investigating the mysterious death of a Wisconsin college student in Mexico — and found widespread problems with tainted alcohol, derelict law enforcement and price gouging from hospitals — more than a dozen travelers from across the country have said TripAdvisor muzzled their first-hand stories of blackouts, rapes and other ways they were injured while vacationing in Mexico.

“To me it’s like censoring,” said Wendy Avery-Swanson of Phoenix, whose recent review of a Mexican resort — describing how she blacked out from a small amount of alcohol served at the swim-up bar — was removed from the website. 

“It wasn’t hearsay,” as TripAdvisor claimed, said Avery-Swanson, 52. “It actually happened to me.”

Massachusetts-based TripAdvisor touts its more than 535 million user reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions around the globe. And company officials say it uses finely tuned software to detect fake reviews and has hundreds of employees dedicated to policing posts and ensuring “content integrity.”

 A Journal Sentinel investigation into the workings of the $1.5 billion company has found that it is what TripAdvisor does not publish that poses real problems for travelers.
 
The company’s policies and practices obscure the public’s ability to fully evaluate the information on its site. Secret algorithms determine which hotels and resorts appear when consumers search. Some hotels pay TripAdvisor when travelers click on their links; some pay commissions when tourists book or travel. 

An untold number of TripAdvisor users have been granted special privileges, including the ability to delete forum posts. But the company won’t disclose how those users are selected.

There’s no way to know how many negative reviews are withheld by TripAdvisor; how many true, terrifying experiences never get told; or for site users to know that much of what they see has been specifically selected and crafted to encourage them to spend.

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The flip side of sites which let anyone post anything, and are thus open to spam.
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A neural network tries writing the first sentence… • AI weirdness

Janelle Shane:

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I decided to give a neural network examples of first sentences of novels, to see if it could generate some that might help writers get started. The main problem turned out to be finding enough examples of first sentences – ideally, I need thousands. I could only find a couple hundred of the most famous lines, and the neural network proceeded to do what it usually does when faced with too little data, which is to give up on trying to understand what’s going on, and instead just try to read it back to me word for word. Think of it like cramming for a test by memorizing instead of learning how to apply rules to solve problems.

Most didn’t make much sense, and/or were obvious mishmashes of famous lines. A few turned out to be maybe usable, probably by accident:

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There was a man and he had seventy first sight.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of my life, fire of my loins.

4 Had come to America from Europe Privet Drive.

The snow is gone sometime, and you said, Why, and I said, To be with the darkness.

It was like the imagination.

It was a wrong number that struggled against the darkness.

It was a dark and stormy night; the swall of the gods?

The moon turned out to see me.

It was a wrong number four Privet Drive.

That’s good thinking: a bowl of the carriage’s parts.

The sky above the present century had reached the snapping point.

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To some extent I think neural networks are inscrutable. Trying to understand why they do this stuff makes on feel like a dog trying to understand physics.
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Before next week, you can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: it has been pointed out that the photo captioned as a turtle yesterday was of a tortoise. We have fired the AI which chooses our pictures.

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