Start Up: Apple’s Shazam purpose, Spotify’s Muzak plan, re-buying Gawker?, exploding asteroids and more

Time to take Iran’s state hackers seriously, experts say. Picture by Dalantech on Flickr.

Now with links which open in new windows/tabs! Really.

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.

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

The problem with Muzak • The Baffler

Liz Pelly:


Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

As an industry insider once explained to me, digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists, in other words, have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”


This approach is reminiscent of the “relaxing” videos that some people adore on YouTube – though those are like a sort of visual Muzak.
link to this extract

Why Apple just spent up to $400 million on song-identification app Shazam • CNBC

Lora Kolodny:


With its large user base comes a staggering amount of data, and data is the new oil. Shazam knows what people are listening to, where and when, and how those trends are shifting over time.

With this kind of attentional feedback, artists, labels and other businesses can learn where fans are listening in the real world, and make better decisions about where to promote their songs offline.

Shazam faces competition, including from SoundHound and China’s QQ Music. But Shazam has been granted over 200 patents around its audio recognition and other technology.

The app is best-known as a song identifier, but Shazam can also be used to scan movie posters or other images to “unlock” extras, like behind-the-scenes video clips or augmented reality content from a celebrity or brand.

Now all of that intellectual property in audio recognition and advertising becomes Apple’s.


Expected exit price of $400m, way below its supposed valuation of over $1bn in 2015. Competition with Spotify’s capabilities as being developed above.
link to this extract

Alabama sends message: We are too broke to care about right and wrong •

Note: this post is from September 2015.

John Archibald:


Take a look at the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters. That’s Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes, Bullock, Perry, Wilcox, Dallas, Hale, and Montgomery, according to the Alabama Secretary of State’s office. Alabama, thanks to its budgetary insanity and inanity, just opted to close driver license bureaus in eight of them. All but Dallas and Montgomery will be closed.

Closed. In a state in which driver licenses or special photo IDs are a requirement for voting.

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75% of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one.


Discovering new ways to implement racism is one of the US’s growth industries. Oh, and there’s an election there today, Tuesday.
link to this extract

New bitcoin futures suggest breakneck price gains to slow • Reuters

Saqib Iqbal Ahmed, Jemima Kelly and Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss:


Chicago-based derivatives exchange Cboe Global Markets launched the futures late on Sunday, marking the first time investors could get exposure to the bitcoin market via a large, regulated exchange.

The one-month bitcoin contract opened at 6 p.m. local time (2300 GMT) on Sunday at $15,460. By midday on Monday in New York, it was trading at $17,780, roughly 10% above bitcoin’s spot price of $16,335 on the Bitstamp exchange.

But given bitcoin has almost tripled in value over the past month, and was up more than 10% on Monday alone, the futures pricing suggested investors see price increases moderating.


Or else that investors are going to lose their shirts on margin calls.
link to this extract

Ex-Gawker employees launch crowdfunding drive to buy website • WSJ

Jonathan Randles:


Former employees of’s defunct publisher are raising money through a new crowdfunding campaign in a bid to purchase the blog out of bankruptcy and relaunch the website.

The campaign was launched Monday on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and seeks to raise at least $500,000. Gawker ceased publication in August 2016 after losing a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan.

“This is a testing of the waters,” said James Del, a former vice president of programming at Gawker Media LLC who is organizing the crowdfunding drive. Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers is also advising, while other former employees are providing input on the project.


Ambitious, but the world has missed Gawker. Maybe they’d choose more carefully in the future.
link to this extract

YouTubers made hundreds of thousands off of bizarre and disturbing child content • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel:


Before YouTube pulled the ads from “Ted”’s channel, it was making him tens of thousands of dollars a month.

The father of two, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from YouTube, left a job with a six-figure salary to make YouTube videos of his young kids. These videos feature his children being “scared” by clowns, and adults mock-wrestling and handling a diaper covered in fake poop. As such, they fall into the broad category of “family-friendly” content — that is, home videos featuring children in situations ranging from merely silly to potentially exploitative — which YouTube recently began cracking down on after public outcry and media attention.

According to screenshots from the YouTuber’s account reviewed by BuzzFeed News, in the past two months, Ted made more than $100,000 on his videos — after YouTube’s 45% cut. Emails obtained by BuzzFeed News also show that twelve videos from the channel — videos that included “suspenseful” scenarios — were manually deemed “suitable for all advertisers” in November. (At least three videos were deemed unsuitable, at least one video was deleted, and another age-restricted.)

And then, suddenly, YouTube pulled advertising on the channel — with what Ted described as “no communication, notification, [or] reason … and no way to appeal or request review” — as part of its effort to remove and/or demonetize (remove ads from) hundreds of thousands of questionable and exploitative kids’ videos on the platform.


After YouTube’s cut. Of 45%. Both amazing facts.
link to this extract

iPhone X: the rise of gestures • Nielsen Norman Group

Raluca Budiu:


The lack of a Home button does incur usability costs, as we’ve hinted above. First, existing iPhone users will have to unlearn all the habits they’ve formed on previous devices. Second, they will have to remember more gestures and their corresponding outcomes. They will make mistakes in the very beginning, but after enough experience, they will eventually become as proficient as they were with their old devices. Last but not least, designers have to worry about this new form factor and about how their app will look on this device.
However, the question is not so much whether there are any costs, but whether the costs of this design are outweighed by the benefits. In this case, there is one potentially huge usability benefit: more screen space. Screen real estate is very expensive on mobile, so every additional millimeter has a positive impact on the user experience. That extra space might mean less scrolling and higher chances of actually seeing relevant content. (Also: how often do users use the Home button? Very often. But less often than reading content in an app or on the web. )
Right now, the extra space may not seem that generous — if you compare the visible area on an iPhone 8 Plus and on an iPhone X, you can see at best one extra line of text. Yet using a gesture instead of a visible button has the potential to open up more user-experience improvements in the designs to come — from Apple and from others.

The webpage as seen on an iPhone X (left) and on an iPhone 8 Plus (right)

Apple is in a unique position to push this kind of gesture-based innovation and could even go beyond that to create a standard vocabulary of gestures that can be used by other apps or phone manufacturers, because the Apple brand  is so strong that people will put up with the hurdles of learning a new system and unlearning what they know for the sake of using its products.


link to this extract

Solved: Are you aware? Comcast is injecting 400+ lines of … • Comcast Xfinity Help and Support Forums

Angry User:


just learned of this dispicable Comcast practice today and I am livid.  Comcast began injecting 400+ lines of JavaScript code in to pages I requested on the internet so that when the browser renders the web page, the JavaScript generates a pop up trying to up-sell me a new modem.  When you call the number in the popup, they’re quick to tell you that you need a new modem, which in my case is not true.  I later verified with level-2 support that my modem is pefectly fine and I don’t need to upgrade.  As deceptive as that is however, my major complaint is that Comcast is intercepting web pages and then altering them by filling them with hundreds of lines of code.  Even worse is that I’ve had to speak to 7 different supervisors from all areas of Comcast and they have either never heard of the process, or those who were aware of the practice don’t know how to turn it off.  


Jonathan Livingood, Comcast staff member:


This is our web notification system, documented in RFC 6108, which has been in place for many years now. It presents an overlay service message on non-TLS-based HTTP sessions. If you click the X box or otherwise acknowledge the notice it should immediately go away. If that is not the case let me know and we’ll have a look at what may be happening.

[re the modem]: We are not trying to sell you a new one. If you own your modem we’re informing you that it is either end of life (EOL) or that you are about to get a speed upgrade that the modem will be unable to deliver.


Comcast can’t win: customers will be annoyed with it for injecting code and putting in popups, or for not telling them about new modems and giving them speed upgrades.
link to this extract

This country’s hacking efforts have become too big to ignore • Cyberscoop

Chris Bing:


Multiple cyber-espionage groups attributed to Iran became increasingly active over the last 12 months, as at least four entities with ties to the regime have broken into a wide array of organizations, according to private sector cybersecurity experts and three former U.S. intelligence officials with knowledge of regional activity.

“For the first time in my career, I’m not convinced we’re responding more to Russia or China,” FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia said in a report published by the company on Thursday. “It feels to me that the majority of the actors we’re responding to right now are hosted in Iran, and they are state-sponsored.”

This surge in digital espionage — which has predominantly come in the form of spearphishing emails, strategic web compromises and breached social media accounts distributing malware — saw Iranian groups attempt to covertly gather business secrets and sensitive personal communications, according to Eyal Sela, head of threat intelligence with cybersecurity company ClearSky Security.

The targeted organizations range in location, with some strictly based in the U.S., some U.S.-based with locations in the Middle East and others solely located in Europe. Among the hardest hit were U.S. companies with a presence in the Middle East.


Nukes and cyber-attacks: the two proficiencies that modern nations want.
link to this extract

US Treasury admits tax plan won’t pay for itself – Axios

Dan Primack:


The US Treasury Department today released a one-page analysis of the GOP’s proposed tax reform plan.

Bottom line: The report acknowledges that the tax plan will not pay for itself via increased economic growth, despite Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin having regularly made such a claim. Instead, getting into the black would require both the tax plan and “a combination of regulatory reform, infrastructure development, and welfare reform.”

Moreover, the analysis uses the White House’s previous economic growth estimates (made before the tax plan was written) and works its way backwards into the math, rather than analyzing how the actual tax plan would affect economic growth.

The backstory: Mnuchin spent months talking about a detailed Treasury analysis of the GOP tax plans, but the NY Times reported in late November that no such analysis actually existed.


It sounds as though Mnuchin and the UK’s David Davis could have an entertaining conversation about non-existent analyses.

I do think Mnuchin should be played in the film – surely there’s going to be a film – by Rick Moranis.
link to this extract

Why do asteroids explode high in the atmosphere? • Bad Astronomy

Phil Plait:


Computer models of how asteroids break up in the atmosphere show that the main mass must have been far weaker overall than the pieces found, by a factor of a hundred or so!

How can this be? New research indicates that the answer is, once again, air. Up until now we haven’t been treating it correctly in the physics.

What was thought to happen was that the rock slams into the atmosphere and the pressure in front of it screams up. This huge force is so great it flattens the asteroid in a process literally called pancaking. The stress breaks the rock up into smaller pieces. Each piece now has more surface area, and therefore more area to slam into air and glow. They each pancake, and the process repeats, giving you a rapid cascade into disintegration and energy release. kaBOOM.

But it turns out that the computer code being used didn’t really treat how the air gets into the rock, literally finding its way at high speed and pressure into cracks and voids inside the rock. That’s where the new research comes in. Using a more sophisticated code (developed at Los Alamos National Lab to simulate air flow at high velocities), they were able to add in the asteroid material permeability to see how it changes the impact physics.

What they found is that increasing the permeability increases the amount of pancaking, which increases the efficiency of breaking up the rock.


Just in case you’re asked by a national leader to help decide what to do about a giant asteroid heading for the earth.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.