Start Up: when Google kills you, BT’s stealth city, Atlanta’s failure, AirPods away, not uncanny AI, and more

Done a lot of content moderation? You might find doing this hard afterward. Photo by Broad Bean Media on Flickr.

Charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day. Today’s is The Internet Archive, which preserves web content that might otherwise be lost (or conveniently scrubbed). It’s in the middle of a $6m funding drive, and is presently at $3.6m. (The average donation is $41.)
Please donate. You can make a one-off or recurring payment.

(Yesterday’s charity was BookTrust: give £10 and a child in social care will receive books for Christmas.)

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 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Blackout nightmare at Atlanta airport shows grid vulnerability • Bloomberg

Mark Chediak:


A sudden power failure at the world’s busiest airport that stranded thousands of passengers and snarled US holiday air traffic underscores the vulnerability of the nation’s grid.

The 11-hour outage was caused by a fire in an underground electrical facility that also cut backup supplies to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said Southern Co.’s Georgia Power utility. Frustrated passengers were left scrambling in the dark while more than a thousand flights were canceled.

“This highlights two things,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst for Glenrock Associates LLC. “One, the grid is vulnerable. Secondly, it shows how dependent the modern economy is on reliable electric power.”

The airport blackout comes on the heels of hurricanes and wildfires that knocked out electricity service to millions of people from Florida to California. Earlier this year, power disruptions in New York City and San Francisco delayed commuters. Utilities say billions are needed to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure and make it more robust by investing in equipment sensors and other technologies that can be used to track and quickly resolve power failures.


US infrastructure is in a parlous state, though this was a classic “single point of failure” error: running everything you rely on through a single place where it can go wrong. (The train crash in Seattle on Monday, though, was on brand-new infrastructure, being tried for the first time. That’s not encouraging.)
link to this extract

Google thinks i’m dead • The New York Times

Rachel Abrams:


I’m not dead yet.

But try telling that to Google.

For much of the last week, I have been trying to persuade the world’s most powerful search engine to remove my photo from biographical details that belong to someone else. A search for “Rachel Abrams” revealed that Google had mashed my picture from The New York Times’s website with the Wikipedia entry for a better-known writer with the same name, who died in 2013.

My father pointed this out in a quizzical text message, but the error seemed like an inconsequential annoyance best ignored indefinitely. To anyone who knows me, it is clearly not me — I am not married, my mother’s name is not Midge, and I was not born in 1951.

But when an acquaintance said she was alarmed to read that I had passed away, it seemed like an error worth correcting.

And so began the quest to convince someone at Google that I am alive.


As Nick Carr comments,


“Google’s cavalier willingness to allow its algorithms to publish misinformation and nonsense does raise important questions, both epistemological and ethical. Is it OK to run an AI when you know that it will spread falsehoods to the public — and on a massive scale? Is it OK to treat truth as collateral damage in the supposed march of progress?”


link to this extract

It’s time for YouTubers to diversify their revenue streams • Medium

Simon Owens:


Philip DeFranco. H3H3 Productions. Vlogbrothers. All have uploaded videos about what they’ve dubbed the “adpocalypse” and how many of them have seen their YouTube ad revenue wiped out.

The adpocalypse, if you’re not familiar with the term, started earlier this year when several media outlets discovered that YouTube was showing pre-roll video ads on channels that were publishing extremist, hateful content. After some of the world’s largest ad buyers temporarily paused their ads on YouTube, the company quickly rolled out an algorithmically-driven vetting system that would scan a video and determine whether the video was deemed “safe” for ads.

As can be expected, this led to some YouTubers waking up and seeing their advertising revenue decimated virtually overnight. And while sometimes it was obvious why a video was demonetized, in many instances YouTubers who went to great lengths to sanitize their videos and bleep out anything remotely controversial still found themselves caught in the algorithm’s unflinching and uncompromising net.


link to this extract

AirPods sold out from Apple and other retailers until 2018, frustrating last-minute holiday shoppers • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:


As we enter the final stretch of holiday shopping this week, Apple’s AirPods are again facing supply issues. After once improving to 3-5 day delivery, and even quicker in some cases, you now won’t get them in time for Christmas if you buy straight from Apple…

If you head to Apple’s Online Store, you’ll see that the company is quoting delivery in the first and second weeks of January – well past the holiday season. This means you’ll have to look elsewhere if you waited until the last-minute to buy AirPods for that special someone this year.

When it comes to buying online, your options are pretty sparse at this point. Best Buy, Verizon, and Sprint all list early January delivery dates or no availability at all. B&H also shows AirPods as back-ordered. AT&T seems to have some availability for 2-day shipping, but be sure to act fast as that could change within a few minutes.


Second year in a row of not meeting demand. Remarkable; this has to be a demand excess.
link to this extract

Artificial intelligence is killing the uncanny valley and our grasp on reality • WIRED

Sandra Upson:


Progress on videos may move faster. Hany Farid, an expert at detecting fake photos and videos and a professor at Dartmouth, worries about how fast viral content spreads, and how slow the verification process is. Farid imagines a near future in which a convincing fake video of President Trump ordering the total nuclear annihilation of North Korea goes viral and incites panic, like a recast War of the Worlds for the AI era. “I try not to make hysterical predictions, but I don’t think this is far-fetched,” he says. “This is in the realm of what’s possible today.”

Fake Trump speeches are already circulating on the internet, a product of Lyrebird, the voice synthesis startup—though in the audio clips the company has shared with the public, Trump keeps his finger off the button, limiting himself to praising Lyrebird. Jose Sotelo, the company’s cofounder and CEO, argues that the technology is inevitable, so he and his colleagues might as well be the ones to do it, with ethical guidelines in place. He believes that the best defense, for now, is raising awareness of what machine learning is capable of. “If you were to see a picture of me on the moon, you would think it’s probably some image editing software,” Sotelo says. “But if you hear convincing audio of your best friend saying bad things about you, you might get worried. It’s a really new technology and a really challenging problem.”


link to this extract

BT InLink in London: building a privatised “smart city” by stealth • Adrian Short


BT’s network of InLink kiosks is planned to replace the majority of the capital’s phone boxes in the next few years. Over 50 are already installed and hundreds more are working their way through the planning process. The headline features of these silver monoliths are free wifi funded by digital advertising screens front and back. Add on to that free phone calls and texts, USB charging for your phone and a tablet screen where you can browse maps and the local council’s website. All this is provided without users or the public purse shelling out a penny.

Street advertising isn’t new. Nor is public wifi. What makes InLink unique is the scale of the planned network and the flexibility of the kiosks. InLink is about much more than helping Londoners get online and helping brands flog them stuff. It’s about building a citywide urban sensor network to monitor and respond to environmental conditions and human activity (what are you up to?) at a far finer grain than current systems. Will our privacy be protected? Will our lives be improved? Who will really be in control? We don’t really know, because the InLink network as a whole is getting no more scrutiny than, well, a bunch of phone boxes…

…Software upgrades and algorithm changes back at InLink central (a company called Intersection, which is owned by Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Alphabet Inc, the company formerly called Google) mean that significant new capabilities with their attendant concerns can be deployed at any time without even touching the box. And, of course, without the public being any the wiser let alone in control of what’s scooped up by the system from our own streets.


link to this extract

‘The basic grossness of humans’ • The Atlantic

Alexis Madrigal:


[Rochelle] LaPlante [who works on Amazon Mechanical Turk and is an organiser for people who work on it] drew attention to the economic conditions under which workers are laboring. They are paid by the review, and the prices can go as low as $0.02 per image reviewed, though there are jobs that pay better, like $0.15 per piece of content. Furthermore, companies can reject judgments that Turkers make, which means they are not paid for that time, and their overall rating on the platform declines.

This work is a brutal and necessary part of the current internet economy. They’re also providing valuable training data that companies use to train machine-learning systems. And yet the people doing it are lucky to make minimum wage, have no worker protections, and must work at breakneck speed to try to earn a living.

As you might expect, reviewing violent, sexual, and disturbing content for a living takes a serious psychological toll on the people who do it.

“When I left Myspace, I didn’t shake hands for like three years because I figured out that people were disgusting. And I just could not touch people,” Bowden said. “Most normal people in the world are just fucking weirdos. I was disgusted by humanity when I left there. So many of my peers, same thing. We all left with horrible views of humanity.”

When I asked her if she’d recovered any sense of faith in humanity, a decade on, Bowden said no. “But I’m able to pretend that I have faith in humanity. That will have to do,” she told me. “It’s okay. Once you accept the basic grossness of humans, it’s easier to remember to avoid touching anything.”


Also worth reading: a history of the development of content moderation.
link to this extract

Have you been ‘pwned’ in a data breach? Troy Hunt can tell • The New York Times


Hunt was invited to appear before Congress in late November to help lawmakers wrestle with this growing crisis of consumer data theft. In just the past two years, attackers have stolen sensitive information about hundreds of millions of people from the credit bureau Equifax, popular online services such as Uber and too many other companies to count.

Much of that stolen data flows directly into the black market. “Data breaches are another commodity, like heroin,” Hunt testified Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Hunt’s unlikely path from Queensland’s Surfers Paradise Beach to what he describes as “fancy government things” on Capitol Hill has been a running joke since his invitation to testify was announced. Virginia Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith, introducing Hunt to lawmakers, noted that he “put on a suit and tie for us when he normally wears jeans and a black T-shirt.”

Hunt said he splurged on the brand-new Hugo Boss suit and Australian outback-style boots because he didn’t have anything else to wear. He also downloaded an app that instructed him on how to tie his necktie.

“Doing my best ‘no really, I’m a professional’ impersonation,” he tweeted from the U.S. Capitol steps shortly before the hearing. “Did it work?”


link to this extract

Amazon Music makes giant strides against Apple and Spotify • Bloomberg

Shira Ovide:


We know Inc. has become a virtual mega-mall for shopping, a creator of gadgets for our daily commutes and our homes and a mover-and-shaker in entertainment. Less well known is how quickly the online retailer has become a force in digital music.

A little over a year after Amazon started to offer people access to web-streaming songs for a monthly fee, the company is the world’s third-largest digital music service by subscribers behind Spotify and Apple Music, according to Midia Research’s Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst. He also estimates that weekly listening on Amazon’s music service is second-highest among the paid music services, behind Spotify and ahead of Apple Music…

…Members of Amazon’s Prime shopping club for several years have been able to listen to a couple million songs for no additional cost. Amazon spiffed up the music hangout for Prime members, and the company added an “unlimited” option with a bigger catalog of songs and more features starting at $8 a month for Prime members or $10 for everyone else. For $4 a month, Prime members can still subscribe and listen only on Amazon’s Echo voice-activated home speakers.

Amazon’s product segmentation gave it relatively low-cost options for the vast majority of Americans who had never paid for Spotify, Apple Music or other subscription services that let people play virtually any song on a whim. And Amazon leveraged the people shopping on its websites, or buying CDs or digital music downloads from Amazon, to try to hook them on streaming music as well.


Any listening is listening as far as the music business is concerned.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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