Start Up: more tech support scams, who reads junk news?, HomePod reviewed, bitcoin’s miner margin, and more


Date formatting in spreadsheets is screwing up genetics papers. Photo by Tony Hirst (thanks Tony!) on Flickr.

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0800GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 10 links for you. Or 20, in pental. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Gene name errors are widespread in the scientific literature • Genome Biology

Mark Ziemann, Yotam Eren and Assam El-Osta:

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The problem of Excel software (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA, USA) inadvertently converting gene symbols to dates and floating-point numbers was originally described in 2004. For example, gene symbols such as SEPT2 (Septin 2) and MARCH1 [Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase] are converted by default to ‘2-Sep’ and ‘1-Mar’, respectively. Furthermore, RIKEN identifiers were described to be automatically converted to floating point numbers (i.e. from accession ‘2310009E13’ to ‘2.31E 13’). Since that report, we have uncovered further instances where gene symbols were converted to dates in supplementary data of recently published papers (e.g. ‘SEPT2’ converted to ‘2006/09/02’). This suggests that gene name errors continue to be a problem in supplementary files accompanying articles.

Inadvertent gene symbol conversion is problematic because these supplementary files are an important resource in the genomics community that are frequently reused. Our aim here is to raise awareness of the problem.

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They found errors of this sort affecting thousands of gene names in roughly one-fifth of papers they examined. The power of defaults to screw things up.
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Tech support scammers find new way to jam Google Chrome • Malwarebytes

Jérôme Segura:

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It happens too fast to see how it works, but you may be able to spot it with a powerful enough machine and if you try to close the tab early on. That code triggers a very large number of downloads in rapid fire, which causes the browser to become unresponsive within a few seconds, and unable to be closed via normal means.

The primary targets for this particular browser freeze are Google Chrome users on Windows. Other browsers will get their own landing pages, abusing other HTML APIs. Considering that Chrome has the most market share in the browser category, this is yet another example of the desire for threat actors to deploy new social engineering schemes.

Since most of these browser lockers are distributed via malvertising, an effective mitigation method is to use an ad-blocker. As a last resort, the Windows Task Manager will allow you to forcefully quit the offending browser processes. Malwarebytes users were already protected against the redirection mechanism used in this attack.

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The dialog shows 2,601 downloads – which blocks you from closing the tab. (UI failure.) These scammers are hiring some skilled programmers.
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How apps, music and more can buoy Apple beyond the iPhone • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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In the 2017 calendar year, Apple reported $31.15bn in revenue from services including Apple’s music (both downloads and subscriptions), video sales and rentals, books, apps (including in-app purchases, subscriptions and advertising sold by Apple), iCloud storage and money Google pays Apple to be the iPhone’s default search engine.

Another way to think of it: Apple is on track to take in about $26 a year in revenue from each of its 1.3 billion active devices. By contrast, Facebook brings in advertising revenue of about $25 a year for each of its more than two billion users. (Users in the US and Canada, Facebook’s most lucrative ad targets, are each worth $26.76 a year.)

Mr. Cook says by 2020 he wants Apple’s services revenue to double from its 2016 level. Between now and then, if revenue from iPhone sales holds steady or declines, which would be a natural consequence of people holding on to their devices longer, then growth in services could become the primary driver of Apple’s overall revenue growth—or even the one thing that keeps it from declining.

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Those 1.3bn devices are held by rather fewer than 1.3bn people, since some proportion will have more than one device. Assume 1bn active users, and that per-user revenue looks even tastier. Facebook, meanwhile, has tapped out its biggest market unless it can push up ad prices.
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Polarization, partisanship and junk news consumption over social media in the US • Oxford Internet Institute

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What kinds of social media users read junk news? We examine the distribution of the most significant sources of junk news in the three months before President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address. Drawing on a list of sources that consistently publish political news and information that is extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news, we find that the distribution of such content is unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum.

We demonstrate that (1) on Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together; (2) on Facebook, extreme hard right pages—distinct from Republican pages—share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together; (3) on average, the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.

Download here

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Depressing. But the phrase “junk news” is neat.
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Apple HomePod review: locked in • The Verge

Nilay Patel says that the HomePod delivers terrific – nay, amazing – music playback. But:

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If I had to bet, I would say that 99% of people will never compare a HomePod and, say, a Sonos One head-to-head in their kitchen. And if you don’t do that, you will never know that the HomePod can put out more bass and clearer mids than the Sonos One. You will instead think that the Sonos One sounds extremely good for its size and price while offering you the ability to use virtually any music service, including Spotify and Apple Music, and working with Amazon Alexa and (eventually) Google Assistant.

That’s really the crux of it: the HomePod sounds incredible, but not so world-bendingly amazing that you should switch away from Spotify, or accept Siri’s frustrating limitations as compared to Alexa.

Apple’s ecosystem lock-in is actively working against a remarkable product with the HomePod, and I say that as someone who uses Apple Music as their primary music service. Sometimes I want to listen to a radio station from TuneIn or SiriusXM; sometimes I want to just let Pandora handle it. Sometimes I want to ask the voice assistant in my house a random question and get a useful answer. And sometimes I want to have people over without remembering to turn off the feature that lets them access my text messages when I’m not in the room.

All of this is why I started thinking of the HomePod as “lonely.” It feels like it was designed for a very demanding person to use while living alone entirely inside Apple’s ecosystem. It’s tied more closely to a single iPhone and iCloud account than any other smart speaker, and Siri has none of the capability or vibrancy of what’s happening with Alexa. Apple can try to move mountains by itself, or it can recognize that the HomePod is a little iOS computer for the home and let developers build on it as they have for so long and with such great success with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

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Highly recommended too: Joanna Stern’s video review for the WSJ. Funny and incisive.
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Bitcoin miners fried in game of chicken • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tim Culpan:

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Had Bitcoin stayed at its 50-day moving average of $13,200, then the average miner could expect to print $80 per week in profit at current levels of computation (hash rate) and difficulty. This is based on the very generous assumption that a miner is running Bitmain Technologies Ltd.’s Antminer S9 at 13.5 TH/s (retail price $2,320), one of the most advanced systems available, and the set-up is in China at wholesale prices. Older equipment will have lower returns, and a lot of those mines are still online.

(Note: Assumes China wholesale price ($0.06/KWh), using listed specifications for Antminer S9 (13.50 TH/s), adds 30% cooling & operational costs, assumes retail is 30% markup from wholesale hardware price, 52-week depreciation schedule (Bitmain offers 180-day warranty). No transaction fee or pool fee. Hash rate and computational difficulty as of Feb. 6, 2018.)

If the price doesn’t rise, then the average miner is set to lose $3 per week at current levels. Mining syndicates such as Antpool – which are probably buying their mines at less than the retail price – may still be making money, but will be getting returns 90% lower than they would at that 50-day moving average.

The only way for miners to return to sustained profits is if Bitcoin prices rise, or some miners turn off the lights, lowering competition. History shows that while the latter is possible, it’s unlikely. In fact, those who have plunked down millions of dollars to build their Bitcoin mining operations seem to be playing chicken in the hope that competitors will flinch.

If that happens, they reason, then the bravest miners will be left alone to enjoy the spoils. If it doesn’t, then expect a lot to drive off the cliff together.

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$3 per week isn’t the end of the world, though it might be nice to have something to show for it than some conked-out graphics cards.
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Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it • Science News

Bethany Brookshire on how scientists don’t cite Wikipedia – but they do seem to look at it very closely:

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the researchers created new Wikipedia articles from scratch to find out if the language in them affected the scientific literature in return. Hanley and Thompson had graduate students in chemistry and in econometrics write up new Wikipedia articles on topics that weren’t yet on the site. The students wrote 43 chemistry articles and 45 econometrics articles. Then, half of the articles in each set got published to Wikipedia in January 2015, and the other half were held back as controls. The researchers gave the articles three months to percolate through the internet. Then they examined the next six months’ worth of published scientific papers in those fields for specific language used in the published Wikipedia entries, and compared it to the language in the entries that never got published.

In chemistry, at least, the new topics proved popular. Both the published and control Wikipedia page entries had been selected from graduate level topics in chemistry that weren’t yet covered on Wikipedia. They included entries such as the synthesis of hydrastine (the precursor to a drug that stops bleeding). People were interested enough to view the new articles on average 4,400 times per month.

The articles’ words trickled into to the scientific literature. In the six months after publishing, the entries influenced about 1 in 300 words in the newly published papers in that chemical discipline. And scientific papers on a topic covered in Wikipedia became slightly more like the Wikipedia article over time. For example, if chemists wrote about the synthesis of hydrastine — one of the new Wikipedia articles — published scientific papers more often used phrases like “Passarini reaction,” a term used in the Wikipedia entry. But if an article never went on to Wikipedia, the scientific papers published on the topic didn’t become any more similar to the never-published article (which could have happened  if the topics were merely getting more popular).

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The depth of Wikipedia on some topics is amazing. I had to look up a specific ligament injury recently. The related pages had clearly been written by medical students regurgitating textbooks. Definitely one of the wonders of the internet.
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Why Microsoft Office is a bigger productivity drain than Candy Crush Saga • Tim Harford

Harford, an economist, writes:

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digital devices slow us down in subtler ways, too. Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points” and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day.

In another example — the making of a woollen coat — Smith emphasises that the division of labour allows us to use machines, even “that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool”.

The shepherd has the perfect tool for a focused task. That tool needs countless other focused specialists: the bricklayer who built the foundry; the collier who mined fuel; the smith who forged the blades. It is a reinforcing spiral: the division of labour lets us build new machines, while machines work best when jobs have been divided into one small task after another.

The rise of the computer complicates this story. Computers can certainly continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists.

In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Once a slide would be produced by a professional, because no one else had the necessary equipment or training. Now anyone can have a go — and they do.

Well-paid middle managers with no design skills take far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at. They also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. On a bill-by-the-minute basis none of this makes sense.

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Perhaps this is where the productivity gap arises – all that time wasted trying to figure out how to stop Word inserting bullet points?
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Crypto rich and paranoid: threats prompt radical security in bitcoin land • Coindesk

Rob Wile on how cryptocurrency investors fearful of online and offline thieves are taking precautions:

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Previously, Grumpy stored the private keys to his cryptocurrency using an ingenious strategy of embedding an encrypted vault in a video file.

But he’s switched to the Ledger Nano S, a pocket-sized hardware wallet.

“Storing the private keys in a vault is good for cold storage, but when you want to use the wallet, you’ll have to expose your key to your PC,” Grumpy said.

A device like the Ledger, on the other hand, keeps the keys unexposed even when plugged into a computer that’s connected to the internet. Instead, the hardware wallet sends a signed message.

Still, Grumpy wasn’t taking any chances. After receiving the Ledger in the mail, Grumpy took the thing apart to verify the chips. He also double-checked the signatures that are generated by the device.

“This to be 99.99% sure that the device itself is genuine and that it hasn’t been tampered with,” he said.

This level of care underscores the added level of personal responsibility the crypto world now faces in a new security environment.

“It’s like moving from an apartment where building security is already provided, to a private home where you are responsible for your own security,” William Mougayar, the author and investor, told CoinDesk.

Most consumers, he said, have yet to make the mental jump to this new reality, which requires not only new skills and know-how but, critically, self-discipline.

“An eight-letter password in your head is no longer sufficient,” Mougayar said.

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I am increasingly persuaded that bitcoin and its brethren are the desktop Linux of currencies.
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Voice UI is the future. But when? • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

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Voice UI is great progress, even if the technology feels a bit stilted and is occasionally infuriating. One challenge is that the smart device just sits there awaiting our commands, doing little or nothing to let us know what commands it understands and how precisely they ought to be formulated. Also, voice assistants generally don’t pass the Turing Test, meaning they can’t really fool us into believing we’re conversing with a human.

A bigger frustration for those of us who are interested in the future of the technology, is that Amazon (and Google and Apple) are playing it close to the chest when it comes to numbers. How many Echo devices have been sold? How often are they used on average: Ten times a day? Five times a week? Almost never? Who (age, occupation) uses them the most and for what?
Amazon knows all this but keeps this fascinating knowledge to itself — and so we turn to the “market analysts”. A survey from late 2016 (eons ago in tech time) found that “the top feature tried by Echo users is the very simple act of setting a timer”. A more recent study says only that Echo users “buy more stuff”.

(As an aside: Serious investigation is, of course, complicated and expensive. You need a large sample, say 1,000 people, to achieve a decent confidence interval for the results, and the participants need to reliably represent the user population at large. I seriously doubt that most research “reports” caroming in the on-line echo chamber meet the above criteria. For example, the “top feature is setting a timer” conclusion was based on a survey of 180 Echo owners.)

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This is, to me, the giant question around voice UIs. How many people use it? For example, my wife uses speech-to-text to dictate texts quite a lot, but doesn’t use it to control anything. I use voice to set timers and, um, dictate texts, quite a lot. Other stuff? Play music?

I can’t quite see myself going through the slog of installing controls around the house just to obviate the work of opening the curtains. This is where I wonder about what we need to get done.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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