Start Up: animoji karaoke!, Twitter’s Russian errors, cheap VR, fake WhatsApps, and more


Even including this screwup, nuclear power is the least lethal major energy source. Oh yes. Photo by CMdRCoRd on Flickr.

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

Twitter sidestepped Russian account warnings, former worker says • Bloomberg

Selina Wang:

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In 2015, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley approached Twitter, asking for help, [Leslie] Miley said. They had found that Twitter had a significant amount of fake accounts, but wanted more data to further their research. Three employees on the product safety and security team, including Miley, met with them. They declined to give the academics data, but the meeting made them curious.

Afterward, the employees ran an analysis on Twitter’s accounts. Miley [then a manager on the accounts team, responsible for the infrastructure handling logins] said he was stunned to find that a significant percentage of the total accounts created on Twitter had Russian and Ukrainian IP addresses. According to Miley’s recollections, he brought the information to his manager, who told him to take the issue to the growth team. Miley said that he doesn’t have records of the tallies. 

“When I brought the information to my boss, the response was ‘stay in your lane. That’s not your role’,” Miley said.

Miley said he advised the growth team to delete most of the accounts they had surfaced from Russia and Ukraine, since the analysis suggested that most were inactive or fake. The growth team didn’t take any action on the Russian and Ukrainian accounts after he presented the data to them, according to Miley.

Many pro-Trump bots that were active during the 2016 U.S. elections were long-dormant accounts, according to researchers. These profiles give the illusion that they’re legitimate, and not created for the sole purpose of spreading propaganda during a campaign, according to Samuel Woolley, research director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future, a non-profit research organization.

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What a mess. We’ve always known that the only number that mattered to Twitter was the number of accounts, but this is terrible.
link to this extract


A fake news writer reveals how he’s making money on Facebook • Mic

Jake Horowitz and Kendall Ciesemier:

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The source attributed a fake quote in the headline of a story to the celebrity and distributed that story on Facebook. Eventually, the story was taken down after it was flagged by Snopes, a third-party fact-checking website that Facebook has enlisted to help flag fake news for removal.

However, the source said he still was able to make $20,000 before the story was taken down.

“The site had already made its money, we had already made our money. We could probably do that a dozen more times before Google and Facebook both would be like, ‘We’re now going to blacklist this website,’” the source said.

In a written statement to Mic, a Facebook spokesperson explained, “Our fact-checking partners diligently review items that are not apparent satire and are focused on the worst of the worst: hoaxes intended specifically to deceive.”

However, the spokesperson also admitted that it commonly takes Facebook more than three days before it is able to remove fake news stories.

“While we know that most of the impressions typically happen in the first day, and that we have missed many, we are getting better,” the spokesperson said.

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Not really going to get ahead of this, are they.
link to this extract


How the web became unreadable • WIRED

Kevin Marks:

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Typography may not seem like a crucial design element, but it is. One of the reasons the web has become the default way that we access information is that it makes that information broadly available to everyone. “The power of the Web is in its universality,” wrote Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web consortium. “Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

But if the web is relayed through text that’s difficult to read, it curtails that open access by excluding large swaths of people, such as the elderly, the visually impaired, or those retrieving websites through low-quality screens. And, as we rely on computers not only to retrieve information but also to access and build services that are crucial to our lives, making sure that everyone can see what’s happening becomes increasingly important.

We should be able to build a baseline structure of text in a way that works for most users, regardless of their eyesight. So, as a physicist by training, I started looking for something measurable…

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He found it in contrast ratio (between type and background.)

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For example: Apple’s typography guidelines suggest that developers aim for a 7:1 contrast ratio. But what ratio, you might ask, is the text used to state the guideline? It’s 5.5:1.

Google’s guidelines suggest an identical preferred ratio of 7:1. But then they recommend 54% opacity for display and caption type, a style guideline that translates to a ratio of 4.6:1.
The typography choices of companies like Apple and Google set the default design of the web. And these two drivers of design are already dancing on the boundaries of legibility.

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link to this extract


How to make Animoji Karaoke with iPhone X • iMore

Rene Ritchie:

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How do you make awesome Animoji Karaoke to share with your friends and all your socials? With these simple steps!

Animoji Karaoke is really more like Animoji or dubsmash or whatever it is we’re calling lipsync these days. You play some music, you move your mouth, and your iPhone X turns it into an animated emoji singing a song.

Let’s break it down.

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It’s probably only going to be a thing for a week, if that – to be replaced by people lipsyncing Trump speeches, film extracts, books and so on – but it’s fun while it lasts. Here’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

(I think the trick is to move your mouth a lot.)

Has there ever been a phone which has created a genre like this so quickly? The thing’s been on sale since Friday.
link to this extract


Examining the malaise of bargain basement virtual reality • Anandtech

Ian Cutress went for a wander around IFA (back in September, but this is still valid), to look for the crappy VR headsets, to see how bad “bad” might be and still be on sale:

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So here’s the thing: the Skyworth headset is essentially a smartphone under the hood that you can’t take out. So what makes it better than a Samsung VR headset where the smartphone can be attached / detatched? One would assume it’s a price thing, and we were told the price for the headset could be $400 to $800. I remarked that it was a pretty large range, but was told that the Skyworth headset is still a work in progress, with exact specifications to be decided later. If it was $400, it might be more palatable, but for $800 then it might be easier to go the smartphone route.

This brings us around to the problem with VR right now. Everyone wants in on the bandwagon, and in a keynote at the event it was pointed out that in order for triple-A style games and film studios to start making content in these new formats, there needs to be more potential sales out there. Current estimates put 500k headsets in the market (of varying degrees of power) with another 2.7 million by the end of 2017. No game studio or film studio, working on the next FPS or Avatar, will make a massive piece of content for only 3.2 million people – it needs to be in the hands of tens of millions to even start to make sense, and we won’t be at that point for a number of years.

All that being said, you have a choice – investing in a premium VR headset to be able to experience the best will cost $700+, in terms of the headset itself plus any extra hardware you need to power it. The easiest way to enter the VR space with some clout is the smartphone or all-in-one route, but that is still a hefty cost. Then there is a large, long gap to the segment of very basic all-in-one virtual reality headsets as shown at IFA this year.

For $100, or the rough price of the Samsung headset without any internal hardware, you get a basic quad-core Rockchip design with limited functionality. I’m half inclined to suggest that a bucket be provided as well, just in case nausea takes over. But it shows what a state VR is in, when the hardware is still so expensive. In order to get a base experience that can truly be called VR, such as with the Skyworth headset, it might be as much as a high-end smartphone anyway. For mass market adoption, the cost to enter has to be low, but not so low we’re scraping the barrel for basic frame rates.

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I can’t see how VR gets to there from here.
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The mystery of Apple’s one-time Services boost • Yahoo Finance

Evan Niu on the mysterious extra payment which appeared in Apple’s Services segment in the past quarter, ascribed to “a favorable one-time adjustment of $640 million due to a change in estimate based on the availability of additional supporting information”. Whaaat? It’s probably traffic acquisition payments from Google for being the default search on Safari and Siri on iOS:

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[on the desktop] the rising popularity of Google’s Chrome browser over the past decade as it overtook Firefox directly undermined the need to occupy Firefox’s default search spot (which was long Mozilla’s primary revenue source); Yahoo! scored the default search spot in Firefox back in 2014. In other words, Chrome cannot displace Safari on iOS in the same way that it displaced Firefox on desktop [because you can’t change the default browser on iOS]. It’s also worth pointing out that Apple just switched Siri search from Microsoft Bing to Google too, which sounds an awful lot like a change in “partner agreements.”

This all comes just months after Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi estimated that Google could end up paying Apple approximately $3bn this year in TAC, which gets booked into Apple’s services business. This revenue is “nearly all profit,” since Apple incurs virtually no cost in sending traffic to the search giant, which helps boost Apple’s overall gross margin. It could offset some other margin headwinds that Apple is currently facing, like the current memory pricing environment. Apple’s gross margin last quarter came in at 37.9%, near the high end of guidance.

Investors don’t have confirmation, but all signs point to that $640m adjustment coming from Google.

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That’s a lot of money just for the Siri switch. And Apple now has millions of reasons not to allow people to switch default apps on iOS.
link to this extract


Smartphone shipments set third quarter record clocking 400m units, growing 5% annually • Counterpoint Research

Shobhit Srivastava:

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According to the latest research from Counterpoint’s Market Monitor service, global smartphone shipments grew 5% YoY in Q3 2017.  Top 10 players now capture 75% of the market thereby leaving just a quarter of the market for the remaining 600+ brands to compete.

Commenting on the findings, Jeff Fieldhack, Research Director at Counterpoint Research said, “The global smartphone market continues to grow in single digits driven by growth in emerging markets. In such a scenario, we have seen key hardware differentiators proliferate to lower price points at much faster rates. For example, alternative aspect ratio 18:9 devices already penetrated sub $150 segment within two quarters of launch in the premium segment. This indicates how cut-throat the competition is within the industry.  Brands are striving for differentiation across price bands. In addition, the increasing share of leading brands is putting additional pressure on smaller brands which can lead to consolidation in some of the OEM-crowded regions going forward.”

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That “quarter of the market” still amounts to 100m units for those 600 brands – an average of 167,000 each. There must be some tiny players out there, given that Sony, HTC, Google and even Nokia make up a few million each – reducing that to 90m units for 590-odd brands. Doesn’t change the maths much; a mean of about 152,000 each.

What’s really going to hurt them is the rise in the price of RAM. Big suppliers will be able to get lower prices; small ones will lose their price competitiveness, and likely their business.
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In just three years Xiaomi has nearly taken over India’s booming smartphone market •

Sushma UN:

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In the last year, Xiaomi’s market share in India has gone from just 6% to 22%, according to Hong Kong-headquartered market intelligence firm Counterpoint Research. That puts its share at par with South Korea’s Samsung, a leader for several years now. And as of September, three of the five most popular smartphones in India are from Xiaomi, Counterpoint said in a report on October 27.

It’s quite a coup considering Xiaomi entered India only in 2014 – Samsung has been around since 1995. The Beijing-based company has invested around $500 million in the Indian subcontinent in the last two years according to Bloomberg and intends to invest a similar amount between the next three and five years.

This stupendous success, analysts reason, is because of a strong supply chain and the company’s ability to sell value for money products in a very price sensitive market.

Since its entry into India, Xiaomi has stood out for its unique go-to-market strategy of selling only via e-commerce. It signed an exclusive partnership with e-tailer Flipkart and ran flash sales for new model launches, with the sales typically ending within seconds of opening. For instance, in a flash sale for the Redmi 1S model in September 2014, around 40,000 pieces were sold out in just 4.2 seconds.

This allowed the company to single-mindedly build capabilities around online retail, which now accounts for around 30% of India’s total smartphone sales. Most other brands have struggled with juggling online and offline sales, with many often failing to satisfy either set of customers.

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Notice that Xiaomi is trying to do offline retail in China – which is comparatively expensive. India is a particular market though: very aware of technical specifications and “value for money”.
link to this extract


Over a million Android users fooled by fake WhatsApp app in official Google Play Store • The Register

Iain Thomson:

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Once again Google’s Play Store has proved less than excellent at tackling malicious apps, after netizens found a fake version of WhatsApp that was good enough to fool over a million people into downloading it.

The rogue program was spotted by Redditors earlier today, and the software looks very much like the real deal. However, when opened, it appears to download and run the real WhatsApp Android client albeit with adverts wrapped around it, making a fast buck for whichever miscreant produced this dodgy imitation.


Fake on the left, legit on the right

“I’ve also installed the app and decompiled it,” reported DexterGenius.

“The app itself has minimal permissions (internet access) but it’s basically an ad-loaded wrapper which has some code to download a second apk, also called ‘whatsapp.apk.’ The app also tries to hide itself by not having a title and having a blank icon.”

The fake app, now removed from the official Play Store, appeared to be developed by WhatsApp Inc, the legit Facebook-owned maker of the messaging client. However, thanks to some Unicode trickery, a hidden space at end allowed this dodgy version to masquerade as a product of WhatsApp Inc, albeit with two bytes, 0xC2 0xA0, at the end forming an invisible space. In other words, it appeared to be a legit app from a real developer, but really it wasn’t.

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The Play Store’s openness doesn’t work in anyone’s favour here. Manual checks on iOS apps bug developers. But is there an equivalent of this on the App Store?
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Contrarily: out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest • Our World in Data

Hannah Ritchie:

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Discussions with regards to energy safety often incite the question of: how many died from the nuclear incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima? We addressed this question in a separate blog post. In summary: estimates vary but the death toll from Chernobyl is likely to be of the order of tens of thousands. For Fukushima, the majority of deaths are expected to be related to induced stress from the evacuation process (standing at 1600 deaths) rather than from direct radiation exposure.

As stand-alone events these impacts are large. However, even as isolated, large-impact events, the death toll stands at several orders of magnitude lower than deaths attributed to air pollution from other traditional energy sources—the World Health Organization estimates that 3 million die every year from ambient air pollution, and 4.3 million from indoor air pollution.15 As so often is the case, single events that make headlines overshadow permanent risks that result in silent tragedies.

Based on historical and current figures of deaths related to energy production, nuclear appears to have caused by far the least harm of the current major energy sources. This empirical reality is largely at odds with public perceptions, where public support for nuclear energy is often low as a result of safety concerns. This is shown in the chart below which measures the share of survey respondents in a given country who are opposed to nuclear energy as a means of electricity production. At a global level, opposition to nuclear energy stood at 62% in 2011.

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/public-opposition-to-nuclear-energy-production

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As Lewis Wolpert was fond of saying, common sense isn’t, and science tends to reveal things which aren’t common sense. (“Common sense” suggests the sun revolves around the earth, for instance.)
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Tablet market declines 5.4% in third quarter despite 4 of top 5 vendors showing positive year-over-year growth • IDC

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The third quarter of 2017 (3Q17) closed with 40m tablets shipped globally, according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. Growing demand for smartphones combined with the lengthening replacement cycle of tablets and strengthening position of traditional PCs left the tablet market in an awkward middle ground that it has not been able to escape. Growth in 3Q17 declined 5.4% year over year, marking the twelfth consecutive quarter of annual decline.

“There’s a penchant for low-cost slates and this holds true even for premium vendors like Apple,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “However, many of these low-cost slates are simply long-awaited replacements for consumers as first-time buyers are becoming harder to find and the overall installed base for these devices declines further in the coming years.”

Meanwhile, growth in the detachable tablet market has been slower than expected as Apple and Microsoft are essentially the only two vendors supplying the category and other PC vendors champion the convertible PC form factor.

“In a recent IDC survey, owners of both convertibles and detachables stated they were far more inclined to recommend a convertible to another shopper than a detachable,” said Linn Huang, research director, Devices & Displays. “Market momentum has steadily shifted away from the latter towards the former over the course of this year. The 2017 holiday season may prove to be a critical crossroad for the detachables category.”

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Apple’s iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface (and some Samsung Tabs) are the only serious players in the “detachable” category; IDC doesn’t include “convertibles” here (which are PCs which have a twistable screen so they can be tablet-like).

More to the point: outside Apple, which has grown for the past two quarters, and up 10% in this quarter, the tablet market is falling away – down by 10% in this quarter. Cheap Chinese OEMs are quitting the market, which is likely saturated; Samsung does lots of “get a tablet with our phone” offers; Amazon sells them really cheap; and it’s hard to see Huawei and Lenovo making a handsome profit on them.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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