Start Up: paying for news, Chromebook cautions, Patreon reverses, dissing Pixel Buds, lost snow and more

The Mirai botnet was initially built to attack Minecraft servers. Then things grew and people got arrested. Photo by John Baichtal on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. 0.7% approve. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Net giants ‘must pay for news’ from which they make billions • Agence France-Presse


Nine European press agencies, including AFP, called Wednesday on internet giants to be forced to pay copyright for using news content on which they make vast profits.

The call comes as the EU is debating a directive to make Facebook, Google, Twitter and other major players pay for the millions of news articles they use or link to.

“Facebook has become the biggest media in the world,” the agencies said in a plea published in the French daily Le Monde.

“Yet neither Facebook nor Google have a newsroom… They do not have journalists in Syria risking their lives, nor a bureau in Zimbabwe investigating Mugabe’s departure, nor editors to check and verify information sent in by reporters on the ground.”

“Access to free information is supposedly one of the great victories of the internet. But it is a myth,” the agencies argued.

“At the end of the chain, informing the public costs a lot of money.”

News, the declaration added, is the second reason after catching up on family and friends for people to log onto Facebook, which tripled its profits to $10bn (€8.5bn) last year.


One to watch.
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Buying a Chromebook? Here’s what you need to worry about • WSJ

Wilson Rothman notes that Chromebook sales have doubled in the US, and that they’re cheap, but note:


When students log into a Chromebook using their school-issued accounts, the school’s settings govern how they use the Google apps, and Google doesn’t target educational accounts for advertising. Yet that login doesn’t necessarily prevent children from visiting unsafe websites.

For now, if you want to lock down a Chromebook, you have to create supervised user accounts, which let you add websites to naughty or nice lists, monitor history, block apps and extensions, and tweak other settings.

But they’re too hands-on: There are no simple filters built on a child’s age, nor anything resembling Apple’s iOS restrictions, which let you turn off a wide array of specific services, from cameras to in-app purchases.

What Google really needs to do is add Chromebooks to its Family Link, a new user-friendly way to monitor and set limits on children’s internet use. At press time, Family Link was compatible only with Android devices, but the surge in Chromebook sales should pressure Google to expand it. Kan Liu, Google’s Chrome OS product-management director, said Google is thinking about how to integrate Family Link into Chromebooks.

(Note: Built-in parental controls are ideal, but there are also third-party controls like Circle for your home network.)


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We messed up. We’re sorry, and we’re not rolling out the fees change • The Patreon Blog

Jack Conte is CEO of Patreon:


We’ve heard you loud and clear. We’re not going to rollout the changes to our payments system that we announced last week. We still have to fix the problems that those changes addressed, but we’re going to fix them in a different way, and we’re going to work with you to come up with the specifics, as we should have done the first time around. Many of you lost patrons, and you lost income. No apology will make up for that, but nevertheless, I’m sorry. It is our core belief that you should own the relationships with your fans. These are your businesses, and they are your fans.

I’ve spent hours and hours on the phone with creators, and so has the Patreon team. Your feedback has been crystal clear:

• The new payments system disproportionately impacted $1 – $2 patrons. We have to build a better system for them.
• Aggregation is highly-valued, and we underestimated that.
• Fundamentally, creators should own the business decisions with their fans, not Patreon. We overstepped our bounds and injected ourselves into that relationship, against our core belief as a business.


Better late than never, but some people have lost sponsorship from this already.
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No, Google’s Pixel Buds won’t change the world • 1843

Leo Mirani:


I took the Pixel Buds to Buckow, in Brandenburg in eastern Germany, with the intent of trying them out in the wild. Reader, they remained in my bag. This is not, therefore, a conventional product review. It is small contribution to the vast corpus of complaints about what happens to product design when an engineer’s focus on problem solving blinds them to the norms of the social interaction. However effective a gadget is, it will fail if it makes its user feel like a chump.

It is bad enough that mobile-phone signal when roaming in the EU can often be spotty (the translation service needs internet connectivity to work). It is worse that Germans possess an inherent distrust of Silicon Valley firms so asking them to speak into a phone while you’re wearing earphones is an invitation for abuse. But worst of all is the sheer awkwardness of the whole thing: hang on a second while I put in these ridiculous things, fire up the app, make sure everything’s synced up, and then speak into my phone while holding it up to your ear, bitte, just so I can hear your response in my own ear.

Danke, but nein danke. This is not how human beings interact with each other. It is telling that this product comes from the same people who brought us Google Glass, an ugly, invasive face-mounted camera that evoked hostility wherever it was worn.


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Popular destinations rerouted to Russia • BGPmon

Andree Toonk:


Early this morning (UTC) our systems detected a suspicious event where many prefixes for high profile destinations were being announced by an unused Russian Autonomous System.

Starting at 04:43 (UTC) 80 prefixes normally announced by organizations such Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitch, NTT Communications and Riot Games were now detected in the global BGP routing tables with an Origin AS of 39523 (DV-LINK-AS), out of Russia.

Looking at timeline we can see two event windows of about three minutes each. The first one started at 04:43 UTC and ended at around 04:46 UTC. The second event started 07:07 UTC and finished at 07:10 UTC.

Even though these events were relatively short lived, they were significant because it was picked up by a large number of peers and because of several new more specific prefixes that are not normally seen on the Internet. So let’s dig a little deeper.

One of the interesting things about this incident is the prefixes that were affected are all network prefixes for well known and high traffic internet organizations. The other odd thing is that the Origin AS 39523 (DV-LINK-AS) hasn’t been seen announcing any prefixes for many years (with one exception below), so why does it all of sudden appear and announce prefixes for networks such as Google?


I won’t pretend to understand this, but they don’t think it’s good.
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The big melt: the Alps and artificial snow • Time

Jeffrey Kluger:


From 1960 to 2017, the Alpine snow season shortened by 38 days—starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than normal. Europe experienced its warmest-ever winter in the 2015–16 season, with snow cover in the southern French Alps just 20% of its typical depth.

Last December was the driest in 150 years of record keeping, and the flakes that did manage to fall didn’t stay around long. The snow line—the point on a slope at which it’s high enough and thus cold enough for snow to stick—is about 3,900 ft., which is a historic high in some areas. But worse lies ahead as scientists predict melt even at nearly 10,000 ft. by the end of the century.

All this is doing terrible things not just to Alpine beauty but to Alpine businesses—especially ski resorts. Globally, the ski industry generates up to $70 billion per year, and 44% of all skiers—and their dollars—flock to the Alps.

Imagine the Caribbean culture and economy without beaches and water; that’s the Alpine culture and economy without snow…

…the Dolomites have changed—their snow quickly vanishing—and that transformation is what caught the eye of Italian photographer Marco Zorzanello. A onetime student of literature, he found himself growing less interested in the lit part of his education and more interested in the human part—particularly the damage humans as a whole are doing to ourselves and to our world through climate change.


They’re remarkable pictures, and quite eerie; and scary if you like skiing.
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Mirai IoT botnet co-authors plead guilty • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs, who named two of the people he believed – through online sleuthing – were behind the original Mirai botnet (which is not the one that knocked Twitter, Reddit et al offline last year; the original was built to attack Minecraft servers):


In addition, the Mirai co-creators pleaded guilty to charges of using their botnet to conduct click fraud — a form of online advertising fraud that will cost Internet advertisers more than $16bn this year, according to estimates from ad verification company Adloox. 

The plea agreements state that Jha, White and another person who also pleaded guilty to click fraud conspiracy charges — a 21-year-old from Metairie, Louisiana named Dalton Norman — leased access to their botnet for the purposes of earning fraudulent advertising revenue through click fraud activity and renting out their botnet to other cybercriminals.

As part of this scheme, victim devices were used to transmit high volumes of requests to view web addresses associated with affiliate advertising content. Because the victim activity resembled legitimate views of these websites, the activity generated fraudulent profits through the sites hosting the advertising content, at the expense of online advertising companies.

Jha and his co-conspirators admitted receiving as part of the click fraud scheme approximately two hundred bitcoin, valued on January 29, 2017 at over $180,000.

Prosecutors say Norman personally earned over 30 bitcoin, valued on January 29, 2017 at approximately $27,000. The documents show that Norman helped Jha and White discover new, previously unknown vulnerabilities in IoT devices that could be used to beef up their Mirai botnet, which at its height grew to more than 300,000 hacked devices.


Click fraud by IoT. Things pretending to be people to click ads.
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Is AlphaZero really a scientific breakthrough in AI? • Medium

Jose Camacho Collados is an AI/NLP research and international chess master:


We should scientifically scrutinize alleged breakthroughs carefully, especially in the period of AI hype we live now. It is actually responsibility of researchers in this area to accurately describe and advertise our achievements, and try not to contribute to the growing (often self-interested) misinformation and mystification of the field. In fact, this early December in NIPS, arguably the most prestigious AI conference, some researchers showed important concerns about the lack of rigour of this scientific community in recent years.

In this case, given the relevance of the claims, I hope these concerns will be clarified and solved in order to be able to accurately judge the actual scientific contribution of this feat, a judgement that it is not possible to make right now. Probably with a better experimental design as well as an effort on reproducibility the conclusions would be a bit weaker as originally claimed.


He has a number of questions about the AlphaZero/Stockfish matchup. Some seem a bit weak, or easily answered, but the question of reproducibility is important. Deepmind is making big claims, but this isn’t how you do real science.
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It’s official: ADSL works over wet string • RevK’s rants


Broadband services are a wonderful innovation of our time, using multiple frequency bands (hence the name) to carry signals over wires (usually copper, sometimes aluminium). One of the key aspects of the technology is its ability to adapt to the length and characteristics of the line on which it is deployed.

We have seen faults on broadband circuits that manifest as the system adapting to much lower speeds, this is a key factor as a service can work, but unusually slowly, over very bad lines.

It has always been said that ADSL will work over a bit of wet string.

Well one of our techies ( took it upon himself to try it today at the office, and well done.

He got some proper string, and made it wet…


Flipping biscuits, he got 3.5Mbps down. That’s more than I get at home.
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Exclusive interview: Apple’s Phil Schiller on how the iPhone X ‘seemed impossible at the start’ • T3

Dan Grabham:


We say to Schiller that we’ve been surprised at how good Face ID is for Apple Pay. “Yes. That was on a long list of things we knew we had to deliver. The home button, at the beginning, really did one thing. Maybe two. It woke up your screen, and then it let you go to the home screen from any app. And then over the years, we’ve layered on many, many uses – the multitasking capabilities, evoking Siri, you being able to use it for Apple Pay, creating Touch ID for your fingerprint. So Face ID had a much harder job for its first version than the home button had for its first version.”

Apple notoriously doesn’t talk about products in advance (unless it’s the 2018 Mac Pro, when it did), but regardless we ask whether Face ID could appear in more Apple products beyond phones? “We try not to get ahead of ourselves,” says Schiller with the look of someone who may have been asked this question before. “While we have many plans throughout the year for many things, we also are realists in that we need to create something, and that we need to make it great, and that we need to study, and we need to learn… all the user cases all around the world from everybody in every situation, before we then imagine some of the other things we might do.”…

Why the pause [in delivering HomePod]?

“It’s really very simple. It’s a brand new product. It’s a lot of engineering to make it be the product we’ve described, and for it to be what we all hope it can be.

“And I’m actually really proud that we’re a company that will take the time to do something right. Our goal is always not to be ‘most’ but to be ‘best’, and we set high standards. We often exceed those, but not always. And we need to be self-honest if something’s not ready, and continue to work on it until it is.”

Schiller is also frank about AI-driven speakers being still very much a developing product category. “Nobody really knows how we all want to use these kinds of products.

“There might not be one product for everybody. And our [focus is] on having great sounding music wherever you place it in your room or your flat, or a great interaction with Siri for a music experience – we think that that’s a great [starting] point for a whole new kind of product in our lives.

“I think others have different perspectives on the things that they’re making, and we’re all going to learn together what we think.”


Also covers AirPods, Apple Pencil, and iPad Pro as a desktop/laptop replacement. I think what he’s saying about HomePod echoes the Apple Watch introduction – Apple had an idea for how that would be used which quite quickly coalesced around the fitness angle rather than apps. What’s HomePod’s one?
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Apple to invest $390m in Finisar to ramp up chip production • Reuters


Apple Inc will give Finisar Corp $390m to increase production of chips that power high-profile iPhone X features including Face ID, Animojis and portrait-mode photos…

…The investment is Apple’s second from its $1bn advanced manufacturing fund that seeks to foster innovation and create jobs, Apple said. The first investment was a $200m infusion into Gorilla Glass maker Corning in May.

Finisar will use the money to transform a previously closed 700,000-square-foot plant in Sherman, Texas to make high volumes of laser diodes called vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers, or VCSELs.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, Apple said it would buy 10 times more VCSELs than were previously made worldwide over a similar time period.


That’s a big ramp in VCSELs. Do they have any other uses?
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I used to be a bitcoin bull — here’s why that changed • Ars Technica

Timothy B Lee:


Now we’re in the midst of another big bitcoin bull market, and I’m much more worried that the market is getting into unsustainable territory. At the beginning of the year, bitcoins were worth $1,000 apiece, and all bitcoins in circulation were worth around $15 billion—still quite small as global financial assets go. Today, each bitcoin is worth $17,000, and all bitcoins in circulation are worth a much more substantial $280 billion. That seems like a lot for a payment network that only processes about four transactions per second.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs that ordinary, unsophisticated investors may be getting in over their heads. Anecdotal reports suggest that people with no real technical or financial expertise are getting interested in cryptocurrency, and some people are even borrowing money to invest in bitcoin. The market is starting to feel like the final month of the dotcom boom, when people started getting tech stock tips from their taxi drivers.

I don’t necessarily think the market is over-valued, and it might still go up further. But I’m pretty sure investors won’t enjoy the kind of outsized gains that earlier investors have enjoyed. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the market crash in the coming months…

…The big question is what will people use bitcoin for, and how big will the resulting markets be?

A big challenge, however, is that the network is becoming increasingly congested. Right now, the network is struggling to process more than about four transactions per second, and intense demand for network capacity has pushed the average transaction fee above $20. There are various proposals to relieve this congestion, from increasing the size of Bitcoin blocks to developing new technologies to allow many transactions to occur outside of Bitcoin’s blockchain.

Nevertheless, capacity limits are likely to limit the Bitcoin network’s growth for years to come.


I get the slight feeling that this is the response to an editor’s call of “find me someone who used to be a bull on bitcoin and is now bearish!”, but overall it’s solid.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up: paying for news, Chromebook cautions, Patreon reverses, dissing Pixel Buds, lost snow and more

  1. Apple puff pieces are always a hoot.
    “It seemed impossible at first”… but then Panasonic, Xiaomi, Essential did it, and we thought “We can do it too ?”
    “And we need to be self-honest if something’s not ready, and continue to work on it until it is.”. Except if it’s Maps: it’s OK to release crappy maps, because we need to track people and get ad $$. Think of it, any software really, including iOS. Software QA is hard and we’re a small company with limited resources !

    I’ve used a bullshit detector ever since my… 3rd professional meeting I guess: when someone is saying something, imagine them saying the opposite. If the result of that mind trick is impossible or nonsensical, then the original is without value (the only value is second-degree: you’ve got to tally what they chose to speak of and what they skipped; it’s a lot of work and requires prep.). That accounts for about 50% of this piece, which is high.

    • The difference from Panasonic, Xiaomi and Essential is that Apple has been selling phones with a physical (or virtually physical) home button for 10 years and has a gigantic user base completely used to navigating with it, and doing multiple things with it (Siri, Apple Pay, navigating back to home screen). Android doesn’t have a physical home button with those responsibilities, unless you’re Samsung.

      The Maps release was hurried because Apple specifically didn’t want to Google to be able to track iOS users, which was part of the contract that Google was demanding to extend Google Maps use on iOS. (Remember Latitude?) iOS could have tracked people even so, but the ad dollars on location for iOS are, I’d imagine, minimal, and most of all you can turn them all off. That option might not have been presented with Google.

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