Start Up: hello robots, an audiophile on HomePod, the Big Switch decade, FBI v Cook, and more

The 2018 Winter Olympics were targeted by – surprise! – Russian hackers. Photo by M. Cheung 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 9 links for you. Or so you think. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Four examples from the automation frontier • Conversable Economics

Timothy Taylor:


Cotton pickers. Shelf-scanners at Walmart. Quality control at building sites. Radiologists. These are just four examples of jobs that are being transformed and even sometime eliminated by the newest wave of automated and programmable machinery. Here are four short stories from various sources, which of course represent a much broader transformation happening across the global economy.


They are short, but they don’t indicate anyone getting fired because of them.
link to this extract

The mental tricks of athletic endurance • WSJ

Alex Hutchinson:


Starting in the late 1990s, the South African author and fitness researcher Tim Noakes advanced the view that our brains are wired for self-preservation. If you push hard enough to endanger your health—by overheating your core or compromising your brain’s oxygen supply, say—your brain will function as a protective “central governor,” automatically weakening the nerve signals driving your muscles. The feedback loop gives rise to the sensation of fatigue and signals you to slow down.

An alternate view proposed a decade later by Samuele Marcora, an exercise scientist at the University of Kent’s Endurance Research Group, posits that our limits are defined by the balance between motivation and perceived effort. We don’t stop because our fatigued muscles are incapable of continuing, in this view, but because the effort required to continue is greater than we’re willing to exert.

Whatever the mechanism, both camps agree that the subjective perception of effort is a sort of master controller—which means, in practical terms, that if you change your perception of a task’s difficulty, you can change your actual results.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon. In a 2014 experiment described in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers led by Dr. Marcora showed cyclists images of smiling faces on a screen in imperceptible 16-millisecond flashes. The exposure boosted cycling performance by 12% over the level recorded with frowning faces projected in the same way. The sight of a smile didn’t lower the subjects’ heart rates or lactate levels, according to Dr. Marcora. Instead, it subtly altered how their brains interpreted those signals, evoking feelings of ease that bled into their perception of how hard they were pedaling.


link to this extract

Apple HomePod – the audiophile perspective measurements! • Reddit

The writer is an audiophile, and says that the HomePod more than satisfies the requirements of an audiophile; almost flat frequency reproduction, but also that self-correcting system:


Speaking of inputs, you have one choice: AirPlay. which means, unless you’re steeped in the apple ecosystem, it’s really hard to recommend this thing. If you are, it’s a no brainer, whether you’re an audiophile or not. If you have an existing sound system that’s far beyond the capabilities of a HomePod (say, an Atmos setup) then grab a few for the other rooms around the house (Kitchen, bedroom, etc). It’s also a great replacement for a small 2-speaker bookshelf system that sits atop your desk in the study, for example. When this tiny unobtrusive speakers sound so good, and are so versatile, grabbing a few of these to scatter around the house so you can enjoy some great audio in other rooms isn’t a bad move — provided you’re already part of the Apple Ecosystem.

AirPlay is nice. It never dropped out during any of my testing, on either speaker, and provides 16bit 44.1Khz lossless. However, my biggest gripe is hard to get past: There are no ports on the back, no alternative inputs. You must use AirPlay with HomePod. Sure, it’s lossless, but if you’re an android or Windows user, theres no guarantee it’ll work reliably, even if you use something like AirParrot (which is a engineered AirPlay app). I understand that’s deeply frustrating for some users.

As a product, the HomePod is also held back by Siri. Almost every review has complained about this, and they’re all right to do so. I’m hoping we see massive improvements to Siri this year at WWDC 2018. There is some great hardware at play, too. What’s truly impressive is that Siri can hear you if you speak in a normal voice, even if the HomePod is playing at full volume. I couldn’t even hear myself say “Hey Siri” over the music, but those directional microphones are really good at picking it up.


Sonos’s Play:1 and Play:3 and Play:5 only have Ethernet inputs, besides wireless. Just sayin’.
link to this extract

The Big Switch: ten years on • Rough Type

Nick Carr looks back on his book about the rise of cloud computing (which he likened to the arrival of the electricity grid) published in 2008:


The stories of the electric grid and the computing grid are both stories of technical ingenuity and fearlessness. The book’s second part, “Living in the Cloud,” is darker. In fact, it was during the course of writing it that my view of the future of computing changed. I began The Big Switch believing that the new computing grid would democratize the use of computing power even as it centralized the machinery of data processing. That is, after all, what the electric grid did. By industrializing the generation and distribution of electricity, it made power a cheap resource that everyone could use simply by sticking a plug into a wall socket.

But data is fundamentally different from electric current, I belatedly realized, and centralizing the provision of computing would also mean centralizing control over information. The owners of the server farms would not be faceless utilities; they would be our overseers.


link to this extract

‘Olympic Destroyer’ malware hit Pyeongchang ahead of opening ceremony • Wired

Andy Greenberg:


while neither Olympics organizers nor security firms are ready to point the finger at the Kremlin, the hackers seem to have at least left behind some calling cards that look rather Russian.

Over the weekend, the Pyeongchang Olympics organizers confirmed that they’re investigating a cyberattack that temporarily paralyzed IT systems ahead of Friday’s opening ceremonies, shutting down display monitors, killing Wi-Fi, and taking down the Olympics website so that visitors were unable to print tickets. (While Intel also scrubbed its planned live drone show during the opening ceremonies, the Pyeongchang organizing committee said in a statement that the cause was “too many spectators standing in the area where the live drone show was supposed to take place,” rather than malware.)


Russian (state) hackers don’t seem too concerned that people can figure out their motivation.
link to this extract

Texts show FBI agents thought Tim Cook was a ‘hypocrite’ in the San Bernardino iPhone encryption fight • Business Insider

Kif Leswing:


In February 2016, as Apple and the FBI were quietly sparring over how to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, two FBI officials unrelated to the case back in Washington DC were privately discussing their distaste for Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“And what makes me really angry about that Apple thing? The fact that Tim Cook plays such the privacy advocate,” Peter Strzok, an FBI counterintelligence agent, wrote on February 9, 2016. “Yeah, jerky, your entire OS is designed to track me without me even knowing it.”

“I know. Hypocrite,” Lisa Page, a lawyer for the bureau, replied minutes later. 

A week after that exchange, the strained relationship between Apple and the nation’s top law enforcement agency became international news when Cook wrote an open letter explaining why Apple would not create special software to unlock the shooter’s iPhone, defying a request to do so by the FBI.  The FBI eventually dropped the request because it found a third-party vendor who was able to extract data from the iPhone 5C without Apple’s help.

The exchange between FBI agents Strzok and Page is part of hundreds of pages of bureau text messages recently published by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as part of a Republican-driven investigation into how the the bureau handled the Hillary Clinton probe.


Guess Apple needed to work a bit harder on the privacy messaging (you confused iOS with Android, Mr Strzok). Though arguably that has happened since.
link to this extract

Economists say the rise of monopoly power explains five puzzling trends • Bloomberg

Peter Coy:


Economists have concocted a variety of explanations for five recent phenomena in the U.S. economy that don’t match the “facts” that economists supposedly agree on. Now a Brown University economist and two of his doctoral students claim to have killed all five birds with one stone—advancing a simple explanation that accounts for all the anomalies at once.

Two changes explain all the discrepancies, they say. First, there’s been an increase in monopoly power, likely caused by an increase of power in the hands of dominant companies. Second, productivity growth has slowed and the population has aged, driving down the natural rate of interest.

The economists’ “unified explanation” has policy implications, says Gauti Eggertsson, the Brown economist who shared the work with two students, Jacob Robbins and Ella Getz Wold. The growth in monopoly profits strengthens the case for raising taxes on capital such as dividends and capital gains, and also suggests that antitrust authorities “should do more to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from forming,” they write.

The paper was released on Feb. 12 by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, where Eggertsson is a grantee and Robbins is a junior fellow. Here is a layman’s summary by Robbins.

The researchers tackle five so-called stylized facts—economists’ lingo for observations about the real world that are so consistent over time that they come to be accepted as true.  For example, one stylized fact asserted by the Hungarian-British economist Nicholas Kaldor in 1957 was that the way the national income is split between workers and capitalists tends to be roughly constant over time. In fact, labor’s share of national income, in the form of wages and salaries, has been on a steady downhill.


A Grand Unified Theory of economics? Could be useful.
link to this extract

Essential sold fewer than 90,000 phones in its first six months • The Verge

Nick Statt:


industry research firm IDC is now reporting that Essential sold fewer than 90,000 units in its first six months on the market.

Francisco Jeronimo, IDC’s research director, tweeted out the stat this morning, writing that the device is “still a long way from becoming a successful venture.” No one reasonably expected Rubin’s new smartphone company to go head-to-head with Apple or Samsung anytime soon (or ever for that matter). But 88,000 units, which is the exact figure IDC reports for Essential Phone sales in 2017, is still quite low and illustrates the uphill battle Rubin is fighting by launching a new phone in a mature, high-end market dominated by some of the world’s largest and most well-equipped corporations.

Essential is effectively a startup, and although it has some of the best expertise in the business alongside Rubin’s reputation, the company may not be able to weather the storm as it slashes costs on the Essential Phone and gears up to inevitably try and launch a successor. The device itself is now $499 after some aggressive cost-cutting and a temporary $399 Cyber Monday deal, suggesting Essential’s margins may be razor-thin at this point as it tries to get more units out into the wild.


It’s a start. More important is whether it can scale up, and make a profit. I’m not optimistic: too many Chinese rivals.
link to this extract

Google’s next Android overhaul will embrace iPhone’s ‘notch’ • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Mark Bergen:


Google is working on an overhaul of its Android mobile software for a new generation of smartphones mimicking Apple’s controversial new “notch” at the top of the iPhone X, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Android update, due later in the year, will also more tightly integrate Google’s digital assistant, improve battery life on phones and support new designs, like multiple screens and foldable displays, the people added.

A key goal of this year’s update to the Google mobile operating system is to persuade more iPhone users to switch to Android devices by improving the look of the software, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing the private plans. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

While Android dominates the middle and low-end of the global smartphone market, Apple controls much of the high-end with users who spend more on apps and other services. Embracing the notch may help change that. The design will mean more new Android phones with cutouts at the top of their screens to fit cameras and other sensors. That will likely support new features, helping Android device makers keep up with similar Apple technology.

What’s unlikely to change much is Android’s nagging problem: Most of the billion-plus Android devices globally run outdated versions of the operating system, exposing security holes and holding back Google’s newest mobile innovations.


It sounds as though smartphone OEMs – most likely Samsung – really are anxious about how the notch is such a visual effect that makes the iPhone X stand out if someone is gazing over your shoulder.

Can’t see how adding a notch is going to induce switching, though. Might make them feature-competitive, but do we still think OS switching is done by a significant proportion of the smartphone population?
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

5 thoughts on “Start Up: hello robots, an audiophile on HomePod, the Big Switch decade, FBI v Cook, and more

    • That’s not tracking *users*. That’s tracking *devices*, and isn’t linked to a user name. This is a key difference. IOS is not about tracking a user in the way that Android absolutely is.

      • I keep hearing that. Do we have a official list and statement about what Apple is tracking or not ?
        I’ve seen stuff about anonimizing, nothing about not tracking except fluffy PR that seems to be lapped up ?

  1. Re : Notch, please note that one of Android’s founders implemented one (on the Essential PH-1) before the iPhoneX came out. That probably means there’s 2 sources of demand for notches: visual branding, and actual features.
    I’d still rather have a straight screen, one bezel, and hold my phone upside-down for selfies. If I ever take one.

  2. The Songs Play:5 actually does have a line in – and anything you have playing through there can play on any of your other Songs speakers (which also works with TV input on the PlayBar)

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.