Start Up: palliative AI?, beyond bitcoin, why biometrics don’t stop secret police, Amazon gets alarming, and more

It’s not a bowling ball, it’s a trackball. But you can be forgiven for the confusion. Photo by Iwan Gabovitch on Flickr.

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

Trackball history: Canada’s earliest gift to computing • Tedium

Ernie Smith:


DATAR represented perhaps one of the most ambitious projects of the budding Canadian computer industry at the time, a sophisticated machine that allowed ships to transfer radar and sonar data with one another…

…DATAR, considering both what it was and how early it was in computer history, was a very complex piece of work, having to integrate a number of cutting-edge technologies into a single machine. According to Georgi Dalakov’s History of Computers website, the resulting prototype used 30,000 vacuum tubes, and with its drum memory system, it could store 500 objects.

An early prototype of the first trackball. Note the stripes on the ball. (via the Engineering Technology and History Wiki)

That machine included a radar screen, and that screen just happened to be controlled by a 5-pin bowling ball. Invented by Tom Cranston and Fred Longstaff and relying an air-bearings system formulated by Taylor, the system worked like this: An operator, using a terminal, would scan over an area using the trackball to target the correct area on the radar screen, and they would hit a trigger to store the information on the screen, and that information would get transferred to other ships.


This is an amazing read.
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Stanford’s AI predicts death for better end-of-life care • IEEE Spectrum

Jeremy Hsu:


Using artificial intelligence to predict when patients may die sounds like an episode from the dystopian science fiction TV series “Black Mirror.” But Stanford University researchers see this use of AI as a benign opportunity to help prompt physicians and patients to have necessary end-of-life conversations earlier.

Many physicians often provide overly rosy estimates about when their patients will die and delay having the difficult conversations about end-of-life options. That understandable human tendency can lead to patients receiving unwanted, expensive and aggressive treatments in a hospital at their time of death instead of being allowed to die more peacefully in relative comfort. The alternative being tested by a Stanford University team would use AI to help physicians screen for newly-admitted patients who could benefit from talking about palliative care choices.

Past studies have shown that about 80% of Americans would prefer to spend their last days at home if possible. In reality, up to 60% of Americans end up dying in an acute care hospital while receiving aggressive medical treatments, according to research cited by the Stanford group’s paper “Improving Palliative Care with Deep Learning” published on the arXiv preprint server.


I guess it was inevitable. But the reality is that most doctors don’t want aggressive medical treatments at EOL. Ask the professionals what they want, and try offering that to patients. It doesn’t really take AI.
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Beyond the bitcoin bubble • The New York Times

Steven B Johnson:


The only blockchain project that has crossed over into mainstream recognition so far is Bitcoin, which is in the middle of a speculative bubble that makes the 1990s internet I.P.O. frenzy look like a neighborhood garage sale. And herein lies the cognitive dissonance that confronts anyone trying to make sense of the blockchain: the potential power of this would-be revolution is being actively undercut by the crowd it is attracting, a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets and mercenaries. Not for the first time, technologists pursuing a vision of an open and decentralized network have found themselves surrounded by a wave of opportunists looking to make an overnight fortune. The question is whether, after the bubble has burst, the very real promise of the blockchain can endure.

To some students of modern technological history, the internet’s fall from grace follows an inevitable historical script. As Tim Wu argued in his 2010 book, “The Master Switch,” all the major information technologies of the 20th century adhered to a similar developmental pattern, starting out as the playthings of hobbyists and researchers motivated by curiosity and community, and ending up in the hands of multinational corporations fixated on maximizing shareholder value. Wu calls this pattern the Cycle, and on the surface at least, the internet has followed the Cycle with convincing fidelity. The internet began as a hodgepodge of government-funded academic research projects and side-hustle hobbies. But 20 years after the web first crested into the popular imagination, it has produced in Google, Facebook and Amazon — and indirectly, Apple — what may well be the most powerful and valuable corporations in the history of capitalism.

Blockchain advocates don’t accept the inevitability of the Cycle. The roots of the internet were in fact more radically open and decentralized than previous information technologies, they argue, and had we managed to stay true to those roots, it could have remained that way. The online world would not be dominated by a handful of information-age titans; our news platforms would be less vulnerable to manipulation and fraud; identity theft would be far less common; advertising dollars would be distributed across a wider range of media properties…

…For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.


He calls the latter “a major oversight”, but you can’t really blame Tim Berners-Lee and the rest for not imagining everything and catering to it. Build incrementally. It’s a long read, and I don’t think I buy his argument about cryptotokens being a potential replacement for bonds.

Notable too that he overlooks the source of so much of the funding and drive for the useful stuff: GPS and the internet came from the government, Linux from a state-funded university graduate.
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The Secret History of World War III, by J.G. Ballard • Presidential Writings

Ballard imagined an America fascinated by the medical detail of its president’s health, even while real events are happening everywhere:


“…here’s an update on our report of two minutes ago. Good news on the President’s CAT scan. There are no abnormal variations in the size or shape of the President’s ventricles. Light rain is forecast for the DC area tonight, and the 8th Air Cavalry have exchanged fire with Soviet border patrols north of Kabul. We’ll be back after the break with a report on the significance of that left temporal lobe spike..”

“For God’s sake, there’s no significance.” I took the remote control unit from Susan’s clenched hand and began to hunt the channels. “What about the Russian Baltic Fleet? The Kremlin is putting counter-pressure on Nato’s northern flank. The US has to respond…”

By luck, I caught a leading network newscaster concluding a bulletin. He beamed confidently at the audience, his glamorous copresenter smiling in anticipation. “As of 5:05 Eastern Standard Time we can report that Mr Reagan’s inter-cranial pressure is satisfactory. All motor and cognitive functions are normal for a man of the President’s age. Repeat, motor and cognitive functions are normal. Now, here’s a newsflash that’s just reached us. At 2:35 local time President Reagan completed a satisfactory bowel motion.” The newscaster turned to his copresenter. “Barbara, I believe you have similar good news on Nancy?”

“Thank you, Dan,” she cut in smoothly. “Yes, just one hour later, at 3:35 local time, Nancy completed her very own bowel motion, her second for the day, so it’s all happening in the First Family.” She glanced at a slip of paper pushed across her desk. “The traffic in Pennsylvania Avenue is seizing up again, while F-16s of the 6th Fleet have shot down seven MiG 29s over the Bering Strait. The President’s blood pressure is 100 over 60. The EGG records a slight left-hand tremor…”

“A tremor of the left hand…” Susan repeated, clenching her fists. “Surely that’s serious?”


Tell me this is fiction and I’ll say, give it 20 years or so. He’d already got the cat-and-laser-pointer nature of US TV news – and its audience.
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Coercion – a problem larger than authentication • Medium

“The Grugq”:


It seems appropriate to address the flawed understanding of security threats prompted by the FaceID authentication mechanism when it was announced. Particularly frustrating was the deep confusion around how coercion works at different levels, and why the sinister threat of “authoritarian regimes” is a poor threat model to apply to authentication mechanism security. It is popular to ask “how will this technology enable abuse by authoritarian regimes,” but the people asking that question, the technologies they choose to fret about, and the fantasy logic they use constructing threat models, need the cold water of reality…

…Technology that empowers dissidents, and dissident groups, is almost always just going to be Facebook (and Twitter, and WhatsApp or whatever the dominant is messenger for their region [see: Metcalfe’s Law]). Security for dissidents comes from being in the public eye, protecting them against secret reprisals.

When the secret police move against dissident groups, the individuals are going to face coercion that is state level. They will vanish while traveling alone. They will kill themselves while in police custody “in order to embarrass the police.” They will throw themselves off tall buildings “rather than face arrest” — no autopsy possible, their bodies cremated within 24hrs as they always wanted. They will commit suicide by shooting themselves in the back of the head, twice – just to be sure. If they survive secret police reprisals long enough, they will go to jail for decades.

The usual goal for a dissident who is captured is to remain silent for 24–48hrs, long enough to enable their comrades to escape. If there is some law governing their detention it may be “endure torture for 7 days, or jail for 30 years.”

At no point in time will dissidents think “if only my mobile phone was protected by an authentication mechanism that could not be tricked by physically forcing me to cooperate against my will.” In many cases, the coercion will be like a parent telling a child to go to their room. The weaker party will simply cooperate.


This is why, he points out, a lot of the noise about privacy in these systems is misplaced. The only information you can’t give up is what you don’t know. And even that can be forced out of you.
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Warning: new undetectable DNS hijacking malware targeting Apple macOS users • The Hacker News

Mohit Kumar:


A security researcher has revealed details of a new piece of undetectable malware targeting Apple’s Mac computers—reportedly first macOS malware of 2018.

Dubbed OSX/MaMi, an unsigned Mach-O 64-bit executable, the malware is somewhat similar to DNSChanger malware that infected millions of computers across the world in 2012.

DNSChanger malware typically changes DNS server settings on infected computers, allowing attackers to route internet traffic through malicious servers and intercept sensitive information.
First appeared on the Malwarebytes forum, a user posted a query regarding unknown malware that infected his friend’s computer that silently changed DNS settings on infected macOS to and addresses.

After looking at the post, ex-NSA hacker Patrick Wardle analysed the malware and found that it is indeed a ‘DNS Hijacker,’ which also invokes security tools to install a new root certificate in an attempt to intercept encrypted communications as well.


So check your DNS settings. (Preferences, Network, Advanced, DNS). Also not detected at that point by any of 59 popular antivirus programs.
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Turning soybeans into diesel fuel is costing us billions • NPR

Dan Charles:


“This is an easy one, economically. Biodiesel is very expensive, relative to petroleum diesel,” says Scott Irwin, an economist at the University of Illinois, who follows biofuel markets closely. He calculates that the extra cost for biodiesel comes to about $1.80 per gallon right now, meaning that the biofuel law is costing Americans about $5.4bn a year.

Irwin explains that use of biodiesel is driven by three different parts of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The law includes a quota for biodiesel use, but in addition to that, biodiesel also is used in order to meet the law’s demand for “advanced biofuels.” Finally, there’s an overall quota for biofuels of all sorts, and companies are using biodiesel to meet that quota as well because they’ve run into limits on their ability to blend ethanol into gasoline.

Defenders of biodiesel insist that it’s a much cleaner fuel than regular diesel, because it doesn’t come from the ground, but from soybean plants that capture carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. In fact, by the EPA’s calculations, replacing petroleum-based fuel with biodiesel will cut greenhouse emissions at least in half.

A growing number of environmentalists, however, say that this calculation is dead wrong. They say that if more soybeans are needed to make fuel in addition to food, it inevitably means that people somewhere on Earth will have to plow up grasslands or cut down forests in order to grow that additional supply — and clearing such land releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


If you add in the externalities of climate change to the cost of petroleum diesel.. does that make a difference?
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Twitter hits back again at claims that its employees monitor direct messages • TechCrunch

Catherine Shu:


Twitter is pushing back against claims made by conservative activist group Project Veritas that its employees monitor private user data, including direct messages. In a statement to media outlets, it said “We do not proactively review DMs. Period. A limited number of employees have access to such information, for legitimate work purposes, and we enforce strict access protocols for those employees.”

Earlier this week, Project Veritas, which produces undercover sting operations that purportedly expose liberal biases at media companies and other organizations, posted footage that appeared to show Twitter engineers claiming that teams of employees look at users’ private data. One engineer seemed to say that Twitter can hand over President Donald Trump’s data, including deleted tweets and direct messages, to the Department of Justice.

Twitter already issued a statement after the video posted saying it “only responds to valid legal requests, and does not share any user information with law enforcement without such a request.”

The company also said the Twitter employees shown in the video “were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter” and added that “we deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative. Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”


Project Veritas has a track record of not being great at accuracy, and of very selective editing. “Speaking in a personal capacity” is hardly a rebuttal, though.
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Echo Spot: ‘smart clock’ launched as Amazon seeks to lock rivals out of home • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:


Amazon is launching its small clock-like Echo Spot in the UK, as it continues to cement its market dominance.

The Echo Spot is small sphere with a 2.5in circular screen, camera and clock face that’s capable of showing the time as well as other at-a-glance information, similar to the larger Echo Show that launched earlier in the year.

“The Spot is to the Show what the Dot is to the original Echo,” said Rich Suplee, head of Alexa for Amazon in Europe. “So this is a smaller, stylish and more affordable version of an Echo with a screen.”

Amazon found great success with its Echo Dot, which was a smaller, cheaper alternative to the full-size Echo speaker – effectively an Echo with a less powerful speaker.

The Echo Spot similarly has most of the features of its more expensive sibling, the £200 Echo Show, condensed into a smaller, cheaper package. The Echo Spot, however, does not share the Dot’s impulse-buy pricing of £50, instead costing £120 each or £200 for two, available for pre-order today and shipping on 24 January…

…The Echo Spot has a camera for video calling to other Echo devices or the Alexa app on smartphones, can play video, music and other smart speaker-associated features. It uses a new four-mic array to hear users, which is a condensed version of the seven or eight-mic arrays used in other Echo devices. It has a reasonable speaker built into it, but also has 3.5mm analogue audio output and Bluetooth for connecting to existing systems.


Clever. Getting into all the niches and nooks.
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Bitcoin’s energy usage is huge – we can’t afford to ignore it • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The more electricity you burn, and the faster your computer, the higher your chance of winning the competition. The prize? 12.5 bitcoin – still worth over $100,000 – plus all the transaction fees paid in the past 10 minutes, which according analysts’ estimates is another $2,500 or so.

This is a winner-takes-all game, where the prize is guaranteed to be paid to one, and only one, miner every 10 minutes. Burning more electricity increases your chances of winning, but correspondingly decreases everyone else’s – and so they have a motivation to burn more electricity in turn.

The economic outcome of all of this is laid bare in a Credit Suisse briefing note published on Tuesday: the network as a whole will reinvest almost all the bitcoin paid out as mining rewards back into its electricity consumption. (Credit Suisse’s ballpark figure assumes that 80% of the expenses of bitcoin miners are spent on electricity).

At current prices for electricity and bitcoin, the bank calculates a maximum profitable power draw of bitcoin at around 100TWh – two-and-a-half times higher than its current rate. Any higher and the miner will lose money.

But it gets worse. If bitcoin were to become the global currency its supporters hope it will, its price would increase. And if its price increases, so too does the amount of electricity miners can afford to burn.

Credit Suisse estimate that a bitcoin price of $50,000 – five times its level as I write – would increase the electricity consumption tenfold. And at a bitcoin price of $1.1m, it would be profitable to use almost all the electricity currently generated in the world for mining.


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Lenovo to stay largest AIO PC vendor in 2018 • Digitimes

Aaron Lee and Steve Shen:


Lenovo is expected to remain the largest all-in-one (AIO) PC vendor worldwide in 2018 with shipments to reach 3-3.2 million units, according to sources from the upstream supply chain.

Enterprise models will replace consumer products as the driving force of Lenovo’s AIO PC sales in 2018, accounting for 60% of total shipments, while the consumer models will make up the remaining 40%, said the sources.

While the overall AIO PC market is expected to grow slowly in 2018, the gaming AIO PC segment is likely to expand at a faster pace in the year, with the market leader Micro-Star International (MSI) to continue to ramp up its market share, according to Digitimes Research. MSI saw its gaming AIO PCs grow 35.7% on year in 2017.

However, the high-end segment could be a new battlefield in the AIO PC segment as Apple has launched its iMac Pro, which is believed to directly take on Microsoft’s Surface Studio, said the sources.


If the iMac (inc Pro) really sells fewer than 3m units in a year out of Apple’s 19.2m (in 2017), given that the old, old, old Mac Pro sells pretty much nothing – surely? – that’s 15% desktop, 85% laptop.
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Why smart devices will get more expensive • The Information

Aaron Tilley:


Qualcomm is talking with a fridge maker about adding a downward-facing camera to understand if a kid or an adult is standing in front of the appliance, according to Raj Talluri, a senior vice president at Qualcomm.

But these higher end chips and other more complex hardware could add several hundred dollars to the cost of devices. And the big question is whether consumers will want to pay extra for these more advanced features and capabilities. As it is, devices with virtual assistants have yet to prove themselves as must-have products. The vast majority of people still only use their Echo, for instance, to check the weather or to play music, according to market research firm Argus Insights. It could be hard to persuade consumers to pay even more for a function they don’t need.

“Unless it’s a piece of hardware that’s earth shattering that no one can get from anyone else, it will be hard to convince consumers to buy it,” said Rene Haas, president of the chip licensing product group at Arm. He said companies behind the virtual assistants like Google and Amazon will have to make money off services.


Services tend not to make that much money, unless you’re Google offering people ads to click. Hardware makes money, if you do it right. Not sure that people are really going to want cameras monitoring them by the fridge.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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