Start Up: climate sceptics predictions, smartphone slowdown?, Maria’s deadly toll, Google’s hardware hit, and more

The Wannacry ransomware was a North Korean attack, the US says. Why announce that now? Photo by portalgda 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
• UK readers: The National Deaf Children’s Society
• US readers: American Society for Deaf Children
• Australian readers: Deaf Children Australia

(Apologies, in other countries you might want to try a search on “deaf children [your country]”.)

• Tuesday’s charity was 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.)

• Monday’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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Trump admin calls out North Korea hackers, stays mum on Russia’s • Daily Beast

Joseph Cox:


On Monday the Trump administration publicly attributed the WannaCry cyberattacks—which locked down computers in businesses, health-care institutions and governments around the world—to North Korea. Thomas P. Bossert, President Trump’s Homeland Security adviser, made the announcement in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and held a White House press conference Tuesday, complete with maps showing which countries were infected by the malware epidemic.

This fanfare could not be much further from how the Trump White House has addressed the issue of Russian hacking throughout the 2016 election and beyond, even though the same intelligence agencies likely contributed to both conclusions.

“It’s striking that a campaign that for so long denied the possibility of attribution has turned into an administration that now treats it as routine enough to do it in the newspaper—when the adversary is not Russia,” Ben Buchanan, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center Cyber Security Project, told The Daily Beast.


As part of the book I’ve been writing about hacking, I’ve looked into the John Podesta hack. What’s remarkable is the sheer volume of straightforward attributions from both private and security groups saying that the DNC and Podesta hacks were the work of Russian groups. What’s also remarkable is how the media largely ignored them, and focussed instead on the content released by those hacks. As Cox also points out, the NotPetya attack in June is attributed to Russia; howcome the Trump administration isn’t calling them out?

The other question: why now? GCHQ and CERT had this pinned down to North Korea back in June. What’s held up the US attribution? The logical conclusion is that this is trying to publicly make an even greater enemy of North Korea, and to make it look less foolish and more crafty – and dangerous.
link to this extract

Checkmate: how do climate science deniers’ predictions stack up? • The Guardian

Graham Readfearn:


some [people] remain convinced that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax and readily find a home for their conspiracy theories and pseudoscience in conservative media outlets and, too often, on publicly funded ones too.

Climate-science deniers love to fling around accusations that climate change models are massively over-egging the global warming pudding and should not be trusted (climate scientist Zeke Hausfather has a great technical explainer on this).

While many pseudo-sceptics are quick with an unfounded criticism, it’s rare for them to put their own alchemy to the test by making firm projections about what’s to come.

But sometimes they do and the results are often spectacularly and comically bad. Let’s have a look at a few.


This is an overlooked point: what do climate sceptics predict? They’re so busy denying that anything’s happening, or that it’s for other reasons, they don’t get asked what they think will happen. This is the tactic to take with deniers: ask them what they forecast, and hold them to it. (Thanks Walt for the pointer.)
link to this extract

Lessons learned from the Minitel era • Web Informant

David Strom on the French phone-based computer system of the 1980s which figured out third-party payments, e-government, online dating, emojis and more:


what can we learn from Minitel going into the future? While most of us think of Minitel as a quaint historical curio that belongs next to the Instamatic camera and the Watt steam engine, it was far ahead of its time. Minitel was also a cash infusion that enabled France to modernize and digitize its aging phone infrastructure. It was the first nationalized online environment, available to everyone in France. It proved that a state subsidy could foster innovation, as long as that subsidy was applied surgically and with care.  As the authors state, “sometimes complete control of network infrastructure by the private sector stifles rather than supports creativity and innovation.”


Try telling that to Americans and…
link to this extract

Harry Potter and the Porrait of what Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash •Botnik Studios


Chapter 13: The Handsome One…

…”LOCKED”, said Mr Staircase, the shabby-robed ghost. They looked at the door, screaming about how closed it was and asking it to be replaced with a small orb. The password was “BEEF WOMEN”, Hermione cried…


You might be able to guess that this is generated by a machine learning system which has read all the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling’s job is safe for a bit.
link to this extract

‘Our relationship with Facebook is difficult’: The Guardian’s David Pemsel says the platform doesn’t value quality • Digiday


Jessica Davies: What’s next for publishers’ relationship with Facebook and Google?
David Pemsel, CEO of the Guardian Media Group: We have a close relationship with Google from [CEO] Sundar [Pichai] down. They recognize the role of quality news within their ecosystem. So we’ve collaborated a lot around video, VR funding, data analytics and engineering resources. It’s a valuable strategic relationship.

JD: What about Facebook?
DP: Facebook is a different picture. Our relationship with them is difficult because we’ve not found the strategic meeting point on which to collaborate. Eighteen months ago, they changed their algorithm, which showed their business model was derived on virality, not on the distribution of quality. We argue that quality, for societal reasons, as well as to derive ad revenue, should be part of their ecosystem. It’s not. We came out of Instant Articles because we didn’t want to provide our journalism in return for nothing. When you have algorithms that are fueling fake news and virality with no definition around what’s good or bad, how can the Guardian play a role within that ecosystem? The idea of what the Guardian does being starved of oxygen in those environments is not only damaging to our business model but damaging to everyone.

JD: Should Google and Facebook be regulated?
DP: Regulation ensures there isn’t negative impact from market dominance, which there is with those organizations, especially in advertising. But you can’t sound anti-platform or anti-digital or anti-Google or Facebook because it’s the future. News organizations have had this narrative of “it’s unfair, look what they’re doing.” But regulation needs to be used appropriately to ensure there is fairness.


link to this extract

Scrooge’s emails • Lost Opinions

Mark Brownlow:


So the challenge was to retell “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in the form of an email inbox. This is the result. As always, start at the bottom…


link to this extract

The surprising use case that has made Google Wifi one of the company’s sleeper hits • CNBC

Jillian D’Onfro:


“It’s not necessarily sexy, but it’s super useful,” Ben Brown, head of Google Wifi told CNBC.

Brown has led the connectivity team through the release of its OnHub router to this latest product. He says that one of the unexpectedly popular use cases that surfaced after Wifi launched was how much people used it to curb their bad digital habits.

“We’ve been so successful in terms of actual quantity of sales because there are a lot of people that are from a non-traditional segment,” he says. “We’re not just marketing to tech enthusiasts, for sure — we know that from all of our engagement with customers and usage data. A lot of what’s driving people to the product is the ability to be a better parent.”

It’s turned out to be a key selling point. Google Wifi lets users pause the Wi-Fi access of specific devices for periods of time or block certain websites. With a few taps in an app, a parent could stop their kids from using their phones during dinner or streaming videos after bedtime.

“[People are] coming to a need they have in the home that has nothing to do with Wi-Fi itself,” he says.

Other mesh Wi-Fi systems, like Eero and Luma, have similar features.


But Google outsells them.
link to this extract

Hurricane Maria killed 64 Puerto Ricans. Another 1,000 died because the disaster response was inadequate • The Washington Post

Jeremy Konyndyk analyses the New York Times report:


the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not built to tackle this kind of challenge: a major disaster in a setting with widespread poverty, weak local response capacity and extreme logistical obstacles. FEMA is designed, under the government’s National Response Framework, to support relatively capable state-level disaster managers. But disaster management capacity in Puerto Rico is weaker than in Texas or Florida, meaning that FEMA had take a much stronger lead role than it is accustomed to.

And so FEMA struggled to adapt, falling short in a number of ways identified in the Times’s report. Puerto Rico’s excess deaths have come mainly from sepsis and respiratory problems, classic post-disaster health problems when there is not enough clean water, safe shelter and adequate health care. Available clean water was so inadequate that as excess deaths were spiking, Puerto Ricans were reportedly turning to sewage-contaminated rivers, condemned wells and Superfund cleanup sites for water. Health-care coverage was so weak that the Navy took the rare step of deploying one of its hospital ships to Puerto Rico. But the ship was poorly suited to Puerto Ricans’ actual health needs — reliant on a bureaucratic referral process that proved difficult to navigate — and ultimately saw very few patients. And it took so long to deliver emergency roofing kits that families stayed in unlivable homes for weeks and months, exposed to the rainy season and creeping mold. Even three months into the response, shelter remains woefully inadequate: FEMA reports that it has sheltered only 28% of those who need it, with just over 20,000 emergency shelter kits installed — leaving more than 50,000 households still in need.


Konyyndyk is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and from 2013 to 2017 was the Obama administration director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID. So would things have been different under a different administration?


“…the Trump administration could have gotten creative: deploying its own international responders at scale, or seeking help from international partners. Inexplicably, it did neither. And the response suffered as a result.”


I feel that the inadequate response is going to come back to bite this administration in an as-yet unpredictable way.
link to this extract

iPhone performance and battery age • Geekbench

John Poole:


I believe (as do others) that Apple introduced a change to limit performance when battery condition decreases past a certain point. Why did Apple do this? kadupse on Reddit offers the following explanation:


Many iPhone 6s devices were shutting down unexpectedly, even after the battery replacement program (Which many people weren’t entitled to use). Because degraded batteries last much less and end up with a lower voltage Apple’s solution was to scale down CPU performance, it doesn’t solve anything and is a bad experience… but it’s better than having your device shutdown at 40% when you need it the most.


Apple acknowledged the sudden shutdown issue that affected the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s earlier this year. However, does the same issue affect the iPhone 7? Apple appears to have added a similar change to iOS 11.2.0 for the iPhone 7.

If the performance drop is due to the “sudden shutdown” fix, users will experience reduced performance without notification. Users expect either full performance, or reduced performance with a notification that their phone is in low-power mode. This fix creates a third, unexpected state. While this state is created to mask a deficiency in battery power, users may believe that the slow down is due to CPU performance, instead of battery performance, which is triggering an Apple introduced CPU slow-down.


So this could well be the answer to “why is my iPhone slower now I’ve upgraded?” Older batteries.

link to this extract

Standalone VR headset shipments to top 1.5 million in 2018 as Oculus, HTC and Lenovo prepare to enter the market • Canalys


Canalys forecasts standalone smart VR headset shipments will pass 1.5m in 2018, and grow with a CAGR of 140% to reach 9.7m units in 2021. Oculus, HTC and Lenovo are launching new standalone headsets aimed at different market segments, which will drive rapid market growth. Standalone VR headsets are expected to help push the VR headset market to 7.6m units in 2018, twice the shipments forecast for this year…

…The recently announced HTC Vive Focus headset with six degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) tracking retails from CNY3,999 (US$600) in China, a similar price to a premium smartphone there. “With its new Vive Focus, HTC is well placed to attract high-value consumers and, more importantly, businesses to its VR platform,” said Canalys Analyst Jason Low. “HTC is clearly not chasing volume, but moving toward the more important value segment, which is the future of VR. Consumer adoption of VR beyond gaming is still shaky but business use-cases are emerging quickly.”


I still don’t see the consumer use (compare Facebook’s $2bn purchase of Oculus with its $1bn purchase of Instagram: which was better value?) but can entirely believe there are good business uses. Same as with Google Glass, really.
link to this extract

Huawei, Oppo, Vivo cut smartphone orders by over 10%, say sources • Digitimes

Sammi Huang and Joseph Tsai:


China-based smartphone brand vendors including Huawei, Oppo and Vivo (BBK) are taking about less 10% of smartphone shipments than their original orders from the supply chain makers for the fourth quarter of 2017, according to sources from related upstream suppliers.

The reduction came as worldwide smartphone demand has become weaker than expected recently, which has also resulted in rising inventories at channels.

Smartphone vendors’ orders to the supply chain makers for the first quarter of 2018 are also likely to be lower than expected, affecting the performance of most upstream supply chain players during the period.

However, Xiaomi Technology appears to have continued enjoying stable sales for its smartphones and is one of a few smartphone vendors that are able to stay out of the influence of the unfavorable market trends thanks to its strong operations in both offline and online operations.


A cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man’s hand. Why would smartphone demand slow down so far, so quickly?
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.