Start Up: limiting chatbots, online media meltdown, Steam dumps bitcoin, Oracle v Google, and more


How much energy is bitcoin mining using? Let’s have a geothermally heated debate! Photo by Nathan11466 on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Yes, it will get fixed soon. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Drawing invisible boundaries in conversational interfaces • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei on how text chatbots keep disappointing us, where voice ones (usually) don’t:

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none of the voice assistants to date sounds close to replicating the natural way a human speaks. These voice assistants may have more human timbre, but the stiff elocution, the mispronunciations, the frequent mistakes in comprehension, all quickly inform the user that what they are dealing with is something of quite limited intelligence. The affordances draw palpable, if invisible, boundaries in the user’s mind, and they quickly realize the low ROI on trying anything other than what is likely to be in the hard-coded response tree. In fact, I’d argue that the small jokes that these UI’s insert, like answering random questions like “what is the meaning of life?” may actually set these assistants up to disappoint people even more by encouraging more such questions the assistant isn’t ready to answer (I found it amusing when Alexa answered my question, “Is Jon Snow dead?” two seasons ago, but then was disappointed when it still had the same abandoned answer a season later, after the question had already been answered by the program months ago).

The same invisible boundaries work immediately when speaking to one of those automated voice customer service menus. You immediately know to speak to these as if you’re addressing an idiot who is also hard of hearing, and the goal is to complete the interaction as quickly as possible, or to divert to a human customer service rep at the earliest possible moment.

[I read on Twitter that one shortcut to get to a human when speaking to an automated voice response system is to curse, that the use of profanity is often a built-in trigger to turn you over to an operator. This is both an amusing and clever design but also feels like some odd admission of guilt on the part of the system designer.]

It is not easy, given the simplicity of textual UIs, to lower the user’s expectations. However, given where the technology is for now, it may be necessary to erect such guardrails. Perhaps the font for the assistant should be some fixed-width typeface, to distinguish it from a human. Maybe some mechanical sound effects could convey the robotic nature of the machine writing the words, and perhaps the syntax should be less human in some ways, to lower expectations.

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Israeli device banishes finger-pricking for sugar levels in diabetes patients • The Times of Israel

Shoshana Solomon:

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Caesarea-based startup Cnoga Medical Ltd. says it has come up with a way to track blood glucose levels without pricking or pain. Its glucose meter, already approved for use in numerous countries worldwide, uses a camera to provide a diagnosis of blood glucose levels by observing the changing colors of the user’s finger.

During a short training period, the device learns to correlate the user’s skin tone with previous glucose level readings.

The technology got the green light on Monday from one of the world’s leading diabetes specialists, Prof. Andreas Pfützner, MD, PhD, who came to Israel to present the company with his findings after having tested the technology in two clinical studies in Germany.

“The results were surprising,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.  Pfützner held two clinical trials at his institute to validate the performance of the technology, and in both studies he found that the medical device performed “with a surprising level of accuracy,” the same as that of needle sensors.

“Cnoga achieved the same level of monitoring as the invasive devices,” he said.

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It’s quite big – about the size of a 9V battery pack – but non-invasive is a big plus.
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Steam is no longer supporting Bitcoin • Group Announcements :: Steam Blog

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As of today [December 6], Steam will no longer support Bitcoin as a payment method on our platform due to high fees and volatility in the value of Bitcoin.

In the past few months we’ve seen an increase in the volatility in the value of Bitcoin and a significant increase in the fees to process transactions on the Bitcoin network. For example, transaction fees that are charged to the customer by the Bitcoin network have skyrocketed this year, topping out at close to $20 a transaction last week (compared to roughly $0.20 when we initially enabled Bitcoin). Unfortunately, Valve has no control over the amount of the fee. These fees result in unreasonably high costs for purchasing games when paying with Bitcoin. The high transaction fees cause even greater problems when the value of Bitcoin itself drops dramatically.

Historically, the value of Bitcoin has been volatile, but the degree of volatility has become extreme in the last few months, losing as much as 25% in value over a period of days. This creates a problem for customers trying to purchase games with Bitcoin.

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Store of value and/or medium of exchange or just speculative instrument?
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Serious faults in Digiconomist’s Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index • Zorinaq

Marc Bevand:

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The author of the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index makes fundamentally flawed assumptions, causing it to demonstrably overestimate the electricity consumption of Bitcoin miners by 1.5× to 3.6×, and likely by 2.0× to 2.5×.

His main error, amongst others, is making the wrong assumption that a fixed “60%” of mining revenues are spent on electricity. “60%” is pulled out of thin air and miscalculated due to a misunderstanding from the author. As of 22 November 2017 he still has not fixed this incorrect assumption.

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The BECI is the thing which makes one think that bitcoin mining is going to be a serious challenge for the electricity grid in a few years. Here, Becand takes it to task. In detail.

But, but, but! That’s not the end of the story. “Digiconomist” arrives in the comments to make defend his (I assume) case. Bevand fights back. Digiconomist responds.

This has been going since February 2017, and they keep updating it. (Latest update: 22 November.) It reminds me of this Star Trek episode.
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Native Mobile Apps Part 1 • David Bressler

Bressler has hit the age everyone eventually hits: he needs glasses for reading, but not for other stuff. But it’s hard to read text on his phone:

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I remem ber when Apple first had a sys tem font pref er ence that worked across apps. Before then, using a Black ber ry or Win dows Mobile, I remem ber hav ing to change the font set ting for each app indi vid u al ly (if the app sup port ed one). It was awk ward at best. Font sizes between apps were incon sis tent dri ving the OCD (fig u ra tive, not diag nos ti cal ly lit er al) part of me insane.

I remem ber the relief that I could go to one set ting on the iPhone and nev er have to think about it again.

Here’s the thing.

I now have the sys tem font set to the high est size. It works great, most ly. How ev er…

Respon sive apps either can’t, can’t eas i ly, or have devel op ers that don’t care to imple ment the sys tem font set ting in their apps. I could call out banks, hos pi tals, and even Coin Mar ket Cap (where I track my cryp to port fo lio dai ly) and Telegram (where I learn more about Cryp to) that don’t sup port the sys tem font.

It dri ves me insane when peo ple don’t accept that their crap py respon sive apps are crap py. I under stand why they have to be some times done (some apps just aren’t that impor tant)… but that’s not the case with the ones I’m most ly using.

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Inside Oracle’s cloak-and-dagger political war with Google • Recode

Tony Romm:

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Oracle’s aggressive legal maneuvering has evolved into a political campaign against Google, sources say.

Take the fight over online privacy, which consumed the U.S. Congress this spring. At the time, lawmakers had just rolled back rules that would have required companies like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to obtain permission before selling their customers’ web-browsing histories to advertisers. Some Republicans said the rules targeting ISPs were heavy-handed and unfair because they didn’t apply to tech giants like Facebook and Google in equal measure. To that end, one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, introduced a bill that aimed to subject both industries to tougher privacy regulations.

Naturally, Google opposed that idea — and speaking through one of its trade associations, the search giant pledged to fight. Days after Blackburn introduced the bill, however, Oracle publicly praised the lawmaker for her work product. Many in tech saw it as an odd move for a company with no search or advertising business.

Then, Oracle purchased mobile billboards in Blackburn’s home state, Tennessee, in an apparent bid to rile locals about the power and reach of Silicon Valley, two sources told Recode. “Internet companies betrayed you,” the ad began. It didn’t mention Google by name, but it still charged that the industry had “sold your most sensitive and personal information for $125bn in advertising revenue last year.”

“Paid for by Oracle,” it read in fine print at the bottom.

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Mecklenburg computer servers held for ransom by hacker • Charlotte Observer

Steve Harrison:

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Mecklenburg County government has been paralyzed by an unknown computer hacker after a county employee unknowingly opened an email attachment Monday that unleashed spyware and a worm into the county’s computer system.

County manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday night that the hacker has essentially frozen the county’s electronic files. The hacker is seeking $23,000 for an encryption key that would release the files.

The hacker’s deadline: 1 p.m. Wednesday.

“The files on the servers are being held for ransom,” she said before a commissioners meeting Wednesday.

Diorio said the county is working with a third-party technology company to decide what to do. She said she is open to paying the ransom, which would be paid in bitcoin.

But Diorio said that paying the ransom would present a number of other potential problems, not including rewarding the hackers.

“If you pay the bitcoin, there is always a risk they won’t give you the encryption key,” she said. “And they could go back for more (money).”…

…Diorio said the hackers don’t have access to people’s health records, Social Security numbers or credit card information.

“Social Security numbers are protected and health information is protected,” she said.

She said an example of the problem is the county’s code enforcement office, where much of the work is done electronically. Employees no longer have access to their records. But she said they are switching to paper records for work on Wednesday.

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Well, you could always consider how much you spend on having airgapped backups. Also: “unknown hacker”? Is that different from “known hacker”? They probably just put the ransomware together like Lego. (Thanks JC for the link.)
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Analysis: Facebook performance declined for news published in 2017 • Medium

Matt McAlister:

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we may be witnessing a decline in Facebook’s influence on news. The new numbers are hiding it in plain sight.

The median average engagements number, the 50th percentile or half of all articles, has been declining most of the year. In Spring the median engagements figure was 36. And now in December that number is down to 23.

Total month-to-month engagements may look encouraging, but the highest performers are the only ones to benefit. The bottom 90% of articles are all in a steady decline.
While it may appear as if the company is obscuring an overall decline by introducing a topline increase, we don’t know what Facebook’s intentions are with this change. It’s conceivable this pattern started well before the change and that we are only now seeing truth with more accurate figures than what we had access to before.

Sampling would surely skew toward flatter growth in a viral system, and now that they report ‘real’ engagements, as they claim, we might be seeing patterns that have been there for years.

Regardless, the larger trend is not good news for news. If most of the news is getting shared less and less on Facebook then publishers will likely also see a reduction in an important source of customer visits, both new customers and loyal customers.

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That is absolutely tiny amounts of sharing, and implies huge numbers of articles are thrown into a void as deep as the Marianas Trench.
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Ziff-Davis has bought Mashable at a fire-sale price and plans to lay off 50 people • Recode

Peter Kafka on the sale, priced at about $50m (after a recent funding round valued it at $250m:

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Mashable’s new owners plan on keeping the site running but want to refocus the company on tech and tech-lifestyle content. That will mean laying off about 50 of the site’s employees and offering other Mashable employees jobs at other Ziff Davis publications, according to a source familiar with the company’s plans, who says founder Pete Cashmore will stay with the company.

Ziff Davis specializes in running low-cost publishers that generate a significant amount of their revenue from “affiliate commerce” — usually executed via in-text links which pay the publisher when a reader clicks on the link, or buys something after clicking on the link. Last year, the company made a bid for the Gawker Media sites when those properties were in a bankruptcy auction.

Mashable’s collapse comes amid increasing skepticism about online publishers that depend on digital advertising, as Google and Facebook eat up increasing amounts of that market. Last week, BuzzFeed said it was laying off about 100 people — around 6% of its workforce — as it looked for new revenue streams to augment its core “native” ads business.

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Mashable started in Cashmore’s bedroom, and at this rate it’s going to end up there too. Its recent “pivot to video”, when it laid off a ton of people who just wrote words, clearly didn’t do the trick.
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Pivot to subscriptions • Medium

Nick Hagar on TheStreet moving to a subscription model:

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Companies across digital media are reaching a moment of truth, one that’s been coming for the 10 years they’ve failed to turn a profit. But while other publications are now pivoting to video, TheStreet’s already been there, done that, and it didn’t work. According to Digiday, “while video views have grown substantially, according to former employees, boosted by the liberal use of autoplay, consumer advertising revenue grew just 2% during the most recent quarter, per the company filing.”
Instead, it’s banking on the value it provides to readers, focusing on events and subscriptions. I think this is a smart move for a niche publication with a dedicated audience, and it’s the approach places like Digiday and The Information rely on.

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TheStreet (and sister publication The Deal) now have fewer than 40 editorial people, having cut about 10 recently. The noose tightens…
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Zeta Global acquires commenting service Disqus • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

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Marketing tech company Zeta Global is making good use of its recent $140m Series F funding round. After acquiring Boomtrain earlier this year, the company today announced it has acquired Disqus, a service you’re probably familiar with thanks to its ubiquitous online commenting service that powers the commenting sections of sites that range from TMZ to The Atlantic and Entertainment Weekly.

A source close to the two companies tells us that the acquisition price was close to $90m. This marks Zeta’s eleventh acquisition since it was founded in 2007.

Zeta Global’s acquisitions have typically focused on more fundamental technologies like AI and machine learning, customer lifecycle management and other adtech related services. At first glance, Disqus doesn’t quite seem to fit into this list, but Disqus sits on a huge data set that goes beyond your favorite troll’s political comments.

“Marketers typically have to make trade-offs between reaching engaged audiences on social platforms with massive reach and using tools that give them control and access to granular targeting capabilities,” said Zeta Global CEO, chairman and co-founder David A. Steinberg. “Disqus strengthens Zeta’s ability to offer the best of both worlds with the scale, visibility and performance marketers have been asking for.”

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“Granular targeting capabilities”. In other words, ads (and other profiling, to be sold on to who knows which company and used for who knows what) based on what you comment on. The case for not commenting on anything – or trying to delete your Disqus profile – just grew sizably.
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