Start Up: Berners-Lee fears web’s future, time for Watch sales?, Pixel Buds review, tracking your web typing, and more


Amazon is the place to learn how to turn out tons of really good graphs. Photo by nate_marsh on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Fresh, free, fair. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Remove the legend to become one • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei with an elegaic post on his time at the early days of Amazon, where he was in charge of the Analytics Package – which sounds a bit like Chandler’s non-job in Friends, except that the company (and Jeff Bezos) relied on the monthly 100-page printed set of charts explaining how the business was faring:

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I rarely use copy machines these days, but that year of my life I used them more than I will all the days that came before and all the days still to come, and so I can say with some confidence that they are among the least reliable machines ever made by mankind.

It was a game, one whose only goal was to minimize pain. A hundred copies of a hundred page document. The machine will break down at some point. A sheet will jam somewhere. The ink cartridge will go dry. How many collated copies do you risk printing at once? Too few and you have to go through the setup process again. Too many and you risk a mid-job error, which then might cascade into a series of ever more complex tasks, like trying to collate just the pages still remaining and then merging them with the pages that were already completed…

…One of the only times I cried at work was late one night, a short time after my mom had passed away from cancer, my left leg in a cast from an ACL/MCL rupture, when I could not understand why my workbooks weren’t checking out, and I lost the will, for a moment, to wrestle it and the universe into submission. This wasn’t a circular reference, which I knew could be fixed once I pursued it to the ends of the earth, or at least the bounds of the workbook. No, this inherent fragility in linked workbooks in Excel 97 was a random flaw in a godless program, and I felt I was likely the person in the entire universe most fated to suffer its arbitrary punishment.

I wanted to leave the office, but I was too tired to go far on my crutches. No one was around the that section of the office at at that hour. I turned off the computer, turned out the lights, put my head down on my desk for a while until the moment passed. Then I booted the PC back up, opened the two workbooks, and looked at the two cells in question. They still differed. I pressed F9. They matched. 

Most months, after I had finished collating all the copies of the Analytics Package, clipping each with a small, then later medium, and finally a large binder clip, I’d deliver most copies by hand, dropping them on each recipient’s empty desk late at night. It was a welcome break to get up from my desk and stroll through the offices, maybe stop to chat with whoever was burning the midnight oil. I felt like a paper boy on his route, and often we’d be up at the same hour.

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That’s only the prelude to his wonderful demonstration of how to make better graphs.
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Compuserve forums set to close after two decades of service • Digital Trends

Joy Martindale:

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If you want to step back in time and give the Compuserve forums one more read, you have until December 15 to do it, as the company has announced that it’s closing the discussion boards after two decades of use. Fans have lamented the move, with particular consternation over the loss of some of the more niche communities which have lasted despite the growth of much more modern social networking platforms.

As the first major commercial online service provider in the U.S., launching its services back in the 1980s, Compuserve is one of the true old-guard of the internet. Now part of the same collective as fellow companies synonymous with the web’s early days, AOL and Yahoo, it appears as if the owners are keen to trim some of the fat and unfortunately, that means the forums have got to go.

The announcement heralding the end of the Compuserve forums was posted at the top of every discussion board and reads: “We regret to inform you that the Forums will be removed from the CompuServe service effective December 15, 2017. For more than two decades, the CompuServe Forums paved the way for online discussions on a wide variety of topics and we appreciate all of the participation and comments you have provided over the years.”

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Compuserve forums were still going?! Some of my stuff is somewhere in there. I’ve seen flamewars you people wouldn’t believe…
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Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’ • The Guardian

Olivia Solon:

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The inventor of the world wide web always maintained his creation was a reflection of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly. But Berners-Lee’s vision for an “open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographical boundaries” has been challenged by increasingly powerful digital gatekeepers whose algorithms can be weaponised by master manipulators.

“I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence,” said the British computer scientist…

“The system is failing. The way ad revenue works with clickbait is not fulfilling the goal of helping humanity promote truth and democracy. So I am concerned,” said Berners-Lee, who in March called for the regulation of online political advertising to prevent it from being used in “unethical ways”.

Since then, it has been revealed that Russian operatives bought micro-targeted political ads aimed at US voters on Facebook, Google and Twitter. Data analytics firms such as Cambridge Analytica, which builds personality profiles of millions of individuals so they can be manipulated through “behavioural micro-targeting”, have also been criticised for creating “weaponised AI propaganda”.

“We have these dark ads that target and manipulate me and then vanish because I can’t bookmark them. This is not democracy – this is putting who gets selected into the hands of the most manipulative companies out there,” said Berners-Lee.

It is not too late to turn things around, he said, provided people challenge the status quo.

“We are so used to these systems being manipulated that people just think that’s how the internet works. We need to think about what it should be like,” he said.

“One of the problems with climate change is getting people to realise it was anthropogenic – created by people. It’s the same problem with social networks – they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed,” he said.

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Berners-Lee and I think alike on this.
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Here’s how people in India are manipulating Twitter trends to spread political propaganda • Buzzfeed

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Twitter is facing serious scrutiny in the United States over revelations that Russian state-linked trolls exploited its platform in an attempt to sow discord in American politics, and it’s making attempts to be more transparent about promoted tweets. But in India, the company’s fastest-growing market, politicians and their supporters have discovered an effective way to spread propaganda without paying Twitter a dime: hijacking the trending column with targeted hashtag campaigns.

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that at least 10 political hashtags that appeared in the top 10 in Twitter’s trends column in India during the last two months were the result of organized campaigns that gave people tweet templates and urged them to post duplicate tweets to promote the hashtags. More than 50% of the tweets containing these 10 trending hashtags had duplicates, and many seemed to be copy-pasted from these tweet templates. There were nearly two dozen other political hashtags that trended in this timeframe — but their popularity doesn’t seem to have been the result of orchestrated campaigns.

Spamming Twitter with duplicate tweets is a violation of Twitter’s rules, which say users aren’t permitted to “post multiple updates to a trending or popular topic with an intent to subvert or manipulate the topic to drive traffic or attention to unrelated accounts, products, services, or initiatives.” A Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “Any use of automation to game Trending Topics is in violation of the Twitter Rules, and we have had measures in place to address this since the spring of 2014.” Still, that isn’t stopping these campaigns that make political propaganda trend on the platform in India.

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Social media v democracy: seconds out.
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11 million people in the UK are not “just about managing” at all, new research shows • Buzzfeed

James Ball:

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There are 3.4 million more households in the UK struggling to live on their income than there were in 2008/09, a new report by the respected anti-poverty group the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed, a week before chancellor Philip Hammond unveils his Budget.

The JRF said 30% of families in the UK – 18.9 million people – were living on an income below the “minimum income standard”, an amount of cash that’s defined by the charity as “having enough to make ends meet”.

Theresa May has spoken of her desire to help families who are “just about managing”, a term that a researcher told BuzzFeed News roughly tallied with those whose income was just below the minimum standard. But more than 11 million people were well below the line, the report shows, suggesting they’re struggling to buy essentials and meet their bill repayments.

The report showed that some groups, such as single parents who aren’t working, and couples where one partner is working full-time while the other is not, are significantly worse off under current policies, often to the sum of thousands of pounds a year. These groups are projected to remain that way in future too.

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That the number is greater than during/after the bank crash is appalling: the effect of “austerity” and no wage growth.
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It’s time for Apple to disclose Apple Watch sales • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

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Four major changes have swung the disclosure debate in favor of Apple providing Apple Watch data on a quarterly basis.

• There is no smartwatch market. After more than two-and-a-half years of competition, it is clear that Apple Watch doesn’t have much genuine competition. Instead of there being a smartwatch market, there is just an Apple Watch market. In the beginning, some thought low-cost, dedicated health and fitness trackers would pose a major long-term sales risk to higher-priced, multipurpose wearable devices like Apple Watch. This has proven to be incorrect. Apple Watch is seeing growing sales momentum while dedicated fitness trackers are quickly fading in the marketplace. Samsung, Garmin, Fossil are the only companies selling at least 100,000 smartwatches per quarter on a regular basis. The rationale for withholding Apple Watch sales data “due to competitive reasons” is getting weaker as time goes on. In addition, competitors already have a very good idea of how Apple Watch is performing in the marketplace thanks to the sales clues provided by Apple. (In addition, I have been providing Apple Watch sales estimates to Above Avalon members for years.)

• Additional Apple Watch sales data. Apple has a much better handle on Apple Watch demand trends given 10 quarters of Apple Watch sales data. Management is well aware of the seasonality found with Apple Watch sales. In addition, much of the unknown found with the quarterly swings in Apple Watch sales has been removed. Year-over-year growth projections for Apple Watch now serve as a more reliable way of forecasting sales. 

• Low Apple Watch expectations. Wall Street no longer has high expectations for Apple Watch sales. Accordingly, Apple is no longer facing the same level of risk of missing Apple Watch sales expectations.

• New Wall Street focus. There is evidence of Wall Street focusing much less on Apple’s unit sales growth. Instead, Wall Street is increasingly focused on Apple’s balance sheet. The result is an environment in which Apple doesn’t have to worry as much about slowing Apple Watch unit sales posing a threat on Wall Street. 

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Report: Samsung sold one smartwatch for every 23 smartphones shipped in Q3 2017 • SamMobile

Abhijeet M:

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Samsung makes among the best smartwatches available on the market, but the Korean company isn’t selling as many smartwatches as it should be, according to data released by analysts at Canalys. In the third quarter of this year, Samsung sold one smartwatch for every 23 smartphones shipped, falling behind Apple and also selling fewer units than Xiaomi, Fitbit, and Huawei.

Apple sold one watch for every seven smartphones, while Huawei sold one for every 14 smartphones shipped. Samsung is currently holding on to 5% of the market share and managed to ship 0.5m units of the Gear S3. It does seem like the Gear Sport wasn’t included in this data, although that wouldn’t have made much of a difference given the Gear Sport’s limited availability right now. The data for next quarter might improve, however, even if Samsung may not manage to match the competition in terms of overall sales.

According to Canalys, the cellular-enabled Apple Watch 3 was a major reason for the Tim Cook led company’s increased sales, suggesting that consumers are interested in smartwatches that can make calls and connect to a data network without a phone. That might be an obstacle for the Gear Sport, which doesn’t offer cellular functionality by virtue of being more focused on fitness than any previous Samsung smartwatch. As for Fitbit and Xiaomi, it’s unlikely Samsung will ever catch up, not unless it starts focusing on affordable fitness trackers, or at least those that cater to a wide variety of price points. At upwards of €200, the Gear Fit2 Pro may not be enough.

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At first this seems like a weird way to measure sales, but then again it makes sense of sorts: you’d expect sales might track together with phones. The “obstacle” for the Gear Sport overlooks the fact that Samsung had a smartwatch with phone capability ages ago – except it didn’t use the same number as your own phone, which complicated matters a lot, since you couldn’t leave your phone behind.
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Google Pixel Buds review: pass • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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I’m pretty disappointed with the Pixel Buds, because they do so little to actually make the wireless headphone experience better. Sure, the Assistant integration is cool, but we’ll be getting other headphones with that functionality soon, so buying the Pixel Buds just for that seems kind of silly. Quick pairing is nice when it works, but again, other headphones are getting (or already have) this.

They also don’t sound especially great, they aren’t very comfortable, the charging case design is terrible, battery life is unremarkable, and it’s clear that fully wireless earbuds are the way forward – not fabric cables. Picking up the Pixel Buds instead of Airpods for the same money seems crazy to me. And if you don’t want Airpods or fully wireless earbuds, Jaybird’s excellent X3s offer much better battery life and a more comfortable fit at a far lower price.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, companies like Bose are beating Google on features and audio. My Soundsport Free can simultaneously be connected to my Pixel 2 XL and Pixelbook, are fully wireless (and last just as long), sound leagues better, and are more comfortable, to boot. Sure, they cost $250, but I’m clearly getting something out of that extra money. It remains wholly unclear to me why I’d spend $160 on the Pixel Buds.

The Pixel Buds need to go back to the drawing board, sadly. I feel like we ended up with them not because Google genuinely thought they were a compelling product, but because the Pixel 2s don’t have a headphone jack and Google needed something to go up against the Airpods.

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I do like the idea of a swipe to change volume: it seems the most obvious missing gesture on Airpods. (Swipe up to increase volume, swipe down to decrease?) I honestly don’t see many people having a use for the translation feature, but if you were Google you’d want to have something unique to Google, and machine translation is the obvious one.
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Inside Internet Archive: 10PB+ of storage in a church… oh, and a little fight to preserve truth • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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To underscore the Internet Archive’s civic purpose, Kahle recounted how on May 1, 2003, the White House issued a statement about the Iraq war: “President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended.” That declaration was subsequently modified without notice to read: “President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended.”

Later, Bush’s statement was removed from the web, but remained preserved in the Internet Archive. It would be December 2011 before combat operations in Iraq actually ended, at least from the perspective of the Obama Administration.

“We want to make it so you can’t just take things off the net and put them down the memory hole,” said Kahle.

Kahle and others made it clear that today’s political climate has added a sense of urgency to digital preservation efforts. Following the 2016 election, the Internet Archive and its community of concerned archivists worked to capture 100TB of information from government websites and databases out of concern it might vanish. It’s a job with no end in sight.

“Things are very dangerous right now for internet content,” said Art Pasquinelli, LOCKSS partnership manager at Stanford University.

Information on the internet is being filtered and fractured through social networks, Pasquinelli suggested. It’s often presented without useful context. Data sets may become inaccessible.

If there’s any good news, it’s that the Internet Archive itself hasn’t been attacked directly, at least in a major way, to stop it from what it’s doing. “We don’t see people trying to modify the records that we’ve stored,” Kahle told The Register. “We haven’t felt like we’ve been attacked. We’ve been used mostly for the purpose that we’ve been designed for.”

The Internet Archive isn’t so much concerned with preventing the spread of misinformation as with making sure information of all sorts remains accessible.

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The Internet Archive is an invaluable resource if you’re trying to research something more than a few years old. Linkrot is so endemic.
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No boundaries: Exfiltration of personal data by session-replay scripts • Freedom To Tinker

Steven Englehardt:

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You may know that most websites have third-party analytics scripts that record which pages you visit and the searches you make. But lately, more and more sites use “session replay” scripts. These scripts record your keystrokes, mouse movements, and scrolling behavior, along with the entire contents of the pages you visit, and send them to third-party servers. Unlike typical analytics services that provide aggregate statistics, these scripts are intended for the recording and playback of individual browsing sessions, as if someone is looking over your shoulder.

The stated purpose of this data collection includes gathering insights into how users interact with websites and discovering broken or confusing pages. However the extent of data collected by these services far exceeds user expectations; text typed into forms is collected before the user submits the form, and precise mouse movements are saved, all without any visual indication to the user. This data can’t reasonably be expected to be kept anonymous. In fact, some companies allow publishers to explicitly link recordings to a user’s real identity.
For this study we analyzed seven of the top session replay companies (based on their relative popularity in our measurements). The services studied are Yandex, FullStory, Hotjar, UserReplay, Smartlook, Clicktale, and SessionCam. We found these services in use on 482 of the Alexa top 50,000 sites.

What can go wrong? In short, a lot.

Collection of page content by third-party replay scripts may cause sensitive information such as medical conditions, credit card details and other personal information displayed on a page to leak to the third-party as part of the recording. This may expose users to identity theft, online scams, and other unwanted behavior. The same is true for the collection of user inputs during checkout and registration processes.

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Javascript considered harmful.
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May 2014: Software is forever • net.wars

Wendy Grossman, writing in May 2014, when Windows XP was about to be wiped from the face of the earth, because nobody would want to keep using an OS that wasn’t supported, surely?

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The end of official support for Windows XP has occasioned a lot of unsympathetic comments like: Windows 7 (and 8) has fundamentally better built-in security, you should have switched long ago anyway; they gave you years of notice; sheesh, they supported it for 13 years; nothing lasts forever.

The notable dissenter, whom I encountered at the event launching Trustwave’s 2014 report, was Matt Palmer, chair of the Channel Islands Information Security Forum, who argued instead that the industry needs a fundamental rethink: “Very few organizations, small or large, can afford to turn over their software estate on a three-to-five-year basis,” he said, going on to ask: “Why are they manufacturing software and only supporting it for a short period?”

In other words, as he put it more succinctly afterwards: we need to stop thinking of software as temporary.

This resonates strongly to anyone who remembers that this exact short-term attitude that software was temporary was the precise cause of the Y2K problem. For those who came in late or believe that the moon landings were faked: despite much media silliness (I remember being asked if irons might be affected), Y2K was a genuine problem. It affected many types of both visible and invisible software in some trivial, some serious ways. The root cause was that throughout most of the second half of the 20th century coders saved on precious memory resources by coding two-digit fields to indicate the year. Come 2000, such software couldn’t distinguish 1935 from 2035: disambiguation required four-digit fields. “Nothing happened” because coder-millennia were spent fixing code. Remediating Y2K cost $100 billion was spent in the US alone, and all because coders in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and even some of the 1990s did not believe their software would still be in use come January 1, 2000. The date of the earliest warning not to think like that? A 1979 paper by Bob Bemer…

…People expect to measure the lives of refrigerators, thermostats, cars, or industrial systems in decades, not months or years. Even if you want to say it’s unreasonable and stupid that people and companies still have old XP boxes running specialized, irreplaceable applications today, one day soon it’s your attitude that will be unreasonable. Software has a much longer lifespan than its coders like to think about, and this will be increasingly true.

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Still true: parts of the NHS and, I think, some bits of the UK Armed Forces are still using XP.
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Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: my democracy isn’t your laboratory • The New York Times

Stevan Dojcinovic is editor-in-chief of KRIK:

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My country, Serbia, has become an unwilling laboratory for Facebook’s experiments on user behavior — and the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism organization where I am the editor in chief is one of the unfortunate lab rats.

Last month, I noticed that our stories had stopped appearing on Facebook as usual. I was stunned. Our largest single source of traffic, accounting for more than half of our monthly page views, had been crippled.

Surely, I thought, it was a glitch. It wasn’t.

Facebook had made a small but devastating change. Posts made by “pages” — including those of organizations like mine — had been removed from the regular News Feed, the default screen users see when they log on to the social media site. They were now segregated into a separate section called Explore Feed that users have to select before they can see our stories. (Unsurprisingly, this didn’t apply to paid posts.)

It wasn’t just in Serbia that Facebook decided to try this experiment with keeping pages off the News Feed. Other small countries that seldom appear in Western headlines — Guatemala, Slovakia, Bolivia and Cambodia — were also chosen by Facebook for the trial.

Some tech sites have reported that this feature might eventually be rolled out to Facebook users in the rest of the world, too. But of course no one really has any way of knowing what the social media company is up to. And we don’t have any way to hold it accountable, either, aside from calling it out publicly. Maybe that’s why it has chosen to experiment with this new feature in small countries far removed from the concerns of most Americans.

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Serbia really isn’t the place to be tooling around with this sort of stuff. But then Facebook’s supra-national influence is increasingly worrying, and its pull-the-wings-off-flies approach to media even more so.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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