Start Up: eat that plastic!, Huawei backs out of US, more on Russia and Facebook, Nokia selling Withings, and more

Multiplayer Minesweeper!
Yes, everyone, multiplayer Minesweeper is here. Photo: timewaster’s own.

A selection of 14 links for you. Not the fourth client. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Engineering a plastic-eating enzyme • University of Portsmouth News

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Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase—a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET— and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: “Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”

The researchers made the breakthrough when they were examining the structure of a natural enzyme which is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, allowing a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

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BRB just writing a screenplay about how humanity subsists on paper bags and wood boats after the enzyme mutates and eats everything plastic everywhere so it eats our TVs and computers and screens and keyboards and
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Apple is planning to launch a news subscription service • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Gerry Smith:

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Apple plans to integrate recently acquired magazine app Texture into Apple News and debut its own premium subscription offering, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is part of a broader push by the iPhone maker to generate more revenue from online content and services.

The Cupertino, California company agreed last month to buy Texture, which lets users subscribe to more than 200 magazines for $9.99 a month. Apple cut about 20 Texture staff soon after, according to one of the people.

The world’s largest technology company is integrating Texture technology and the remaining employees into its Apple News team, which is building the premium service. An upgraded Apple News app with the subscription offering is expected to launch within the next year, and a slice of the subscription revenue will go to magazine publishers that are part of the program, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Apple declined to comment.

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Makes complete sense. Services business, repeat business, content aggregation.
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Huawei, failing to crack US market, signals a change in tactics • The New York Times

Raymond Zhong and Paul Mozur:

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Last week, the company laid off five American employees, including William B. Plummer, the executive who was the face of its Sisyphean efforts to win over Washington, according to people familiar with the matter. Huawei has also been dialing back its political outreach in the United States, these people said — which could end a decade of mostly fruitless efforts to dispel Washington’s accusations that the company has ties to the Chinese government.

Huawei’s tactics are changing as its business prospects in the United States have darkened considerably. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to proceed with a new rule that could effectively kill off what little business the company has in the United States. Although the proposed rule does not mention Huawei by name, it would block federally subsidized telecommunications carriers from using suppliers deemed to pose a risk to American national security.

Like other major tech companies, whether American or Chinese, Huawei (pronounced “HWA-way”) has been caught in the crossfire as the Trump administration ratchets up efforts to stop China’s high-tech ambitions. The two countries are waging a new kind of cold war, and with each increasingly suspicious of the other’s technology, winners are chosen based on national allegiances.

Huawei’s latest moves suggest that it has accepted that its political battles in the United States are not ones it is likely to win.

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It’s doing OK in Europe, and very well in Asia and elsewhere, but the US now seems to be a closed market.
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Ajit Pai’s ex-broadband advisor arrested on charge of forging fiber contracts • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The former head of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) has been arrested on a charge of wire fraud for allegedly tricking investors into pouring money into a fiber-optic network.

Elizabeth Pierce is accused of “forg[ing] guaranteed revenue contracts to fraudulently induce investors to invest more than $250m in a fiber optic cable network in Alaska,” according to a press release issued last week by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Pierce was the first chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s 29-member broadband committee, which has seen defections from municipal officials who say it has prioritized the interests of private Internet providers over those of cities and towns.

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Peculiar thing: the Trump-backing Wall Street Journal has the same story about Pierce – except that unlike every other outlet which reported the story, it doesn’t mention that she sat on Pai’s broadband committee.

It’s amazing: Trump’s administration is like a vortex of corruption. If convicted, Pierce could get 20 years.

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OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to change the world — then it all went wrong • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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In late 2005, tech visionary and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte pulled the cloth cover off a small green computer with a bright yellow crank. The device was the first working prototype for Negroponte’s new nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, dubbed “the green machine” or simply “the $100 laptop.” And it was like nothing that Negroponte’s audience — at either his panel at a UN-sponsored tech summit in Tunis, or around the globe — had ever seen.

After UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered a glowing introduction, Negroponte explained exactly why. The $100 laptop would have all the features of an ordinary computer but require so little electricity that a child could power it with a hand crank. It would be rugged enough for children to use anywhere, instead of being limited to schools. Mesh networking would let one laptop extend a single internet connection to many others. A Linux-based operating system would give kids total access to the computer — OLPC had reportedly turned down an offer of free Mac OS X licenses from Steve Jobs. And as its name suggested, the laptop would cost only $100, at a time when its competitors cost $1,000 or more.

“We really believe we can make literally hundreds of millions of these machines available to children around the world,” Negroponte promised. “And it’s not just $100. It’s going to go lower.” He hinted that big manufacturing and purchasing partners were on the horizon, and demonstrated the laptop’s versatile hardware, which could be folded into a chunky e-reader, a simple gaming console, or a tiny television.

Then, Negroponte and Annan rose for a photo-op with two OLPC laptops, and reporters urged them to demonstrate the machines’ distinctive cranks. Annan’s crank handle fell off almost immediately. As he quietly reattached it, Negroponte managed half a turn before hitting the flat surface of the table.

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So much went wrong: the design, the software (people didn’t want a desktop Linux their kids would never see again), the price. And the concept: technological determinism would triumph, surely. (As a side note, this is a terrific piece of investigation and writing by Robertson. A timeless piece, because it will always be a reminder against technological hubris.)
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Don’t trust anyone over 70 • Foreign Policy

Gautam Mukunda:

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Even beyond the immediate effects of illness, aging can have pronounced effects on personality. Put simply, in general people really don’t mellow with age. Instead, Jerrold Post and Bert Park have shown that they tend to become exaggerated versions — almost caricatures — of themselves, with their normal tendencies and patterns becoming intensified. This tendency is particularly likely to affect foreign policy. The aggressive can become belligerent, the passive, apathetic. Tendencies that would otherwise have fallen within an acceptable range can suddenly become problematic — a shift that, when it happens to a head of government, is particularly likely to upset foreign policy.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, are aging’s effects on cognition. Some of these are well known. The advance of age tends to weaken recall, particularly of recent events, for example. Less commonly acknowledged, but perhaps more important, are aging’s effects on intelligence. Cognitive abilities can be split into two categories: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence is what we use to accomplish routine tasks. It increases over the course of a person’s life, peaking in the 60s. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to solve new problems. It seems to begin declining at 20. This asymmetric deterioration is perhaps the most worrying feature of aging. The increase in crystallized intelligence can serve to camouflage any real decline that might be occurring. Most situations, after all, are routine, and so a leader may seem entirely unaffected by age. Furthermore, governments are likely to have considerable institutional ability to handle such situations, which will tend to compensate for a leader’s compromised skills.

The most critical and dangerous situations, on the other hand, are novel ones — situations that the normal functioning of governmental institutions is least able to handle and that therefore require peak performance from a leader. This is precisely when an age-related decline in fluid intelligence is likely to have its most severe effects. So age-related decline may be most consequential at the worst possible moment.

Given the potential dangers, the burden of proof should be on aging leaders to justify their continued hold on power, not on those who challenge them.

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Donald Trump will be 72 in June. (Vladimir Putin is 66 in October; Xi Jinping is 65 in June; Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005, is 64 in July; Theresa May is 61; Justin Trudeau turned 46 in December; Kim Jong-un is 34, or 35, or 36.)
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Whois is dead as Europe hands DNS overlord ICANN its arse • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

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In a letter [PDF] sent this week to DNS overseer ICANN, Europe’s data protection authorities have effectively killed off the current service, noting that it breaks the law and so will be illegal come 25 May, when GDPR comes into force.

The letter also has harsh words for ICANN’s proposed interim solution, criticizing its vagueness and noting it needs to include explicit wording about what can be done with registrant data, as well as introduce auditing and compliance functions to make sure the data isn’t being abused.

ICANN now has a little over a month to come up with a replacement to the decades-old service that covers millions of domain names and lists the personal contact details of domain registrants, including their name, email and telephone number.

ICANN has already acknowledged it has no chance of doing so: a blog post by the company in response to the letter warns that without being granted a special temporary exemption from the law, the system will fracture.

“Unless there is a moratorium, we may no longer be able to give instructions to the contracted parties through our agreements to maintain Whois,” it warns. “Without resolution of these issues, the Whois system will become fragmented.”

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The GDPR says personal information can’t just be offered publicly. So WHOIS lookups on European individuals who own sites can’t show personal information. But ICANN lets it. Impasse, and big problem.
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Are external GPUs for Macs viable in macOS 10.13.4? We tested to find out • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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When software support is complete and everything works as intended, the performance gains we’ve seen here paint a rosy picture for the future of this technology as a way to augment laptops for games and creative applications. We recorded more playable frame rates in games and significantly improved benchmark scores over what we got with the internal GPU—and that’s with one of the fastest discrete GPUs in Apple’s laptops.

But even though the potential is vividly clear, the implementation is not yet complete. The experience is hit-and-miss depending on which software you’re using. Further, we experienced several crashes and unexpected behaviors, and while Metal performance is greatly improved, the performance gap isn’t as big for apps built for OpenGL—and unfortunately, many consumer Mac applications still are.

eGPUs might be publicly supported now, but they’re still not ready for primetime. The experience is too unstable, support isn’t robust enough, there are too many caveats and limitations, and Boot Camp support will be necessary for eGPUs to be attractive to many consumers.

That said, I see where Apple is going with this, and I’m convinced that it could be viable if the company expands support in the right ways. Apple clearly intends this to be the upgrade and expansion path for its iMac Pro and MacBook Pro computers, and if the software support falls into place, I believe that can work out as the company and its users hope. After all, video editors are already accustomed to connecting their machines to various other equipment in their edit bays.

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Once developers (including Apple, it seems: Final Cut Pro doesn’t yet support eGPUs) update their software, it should get there. It’s hoping for a lot that you could seamlessly add an external GPU. (There’s a good discussion, if you have a couple of hours, about this when Matthew Panzarino appeared on John Gruber’s The Talk Show recently.)


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Nokia’s Health division is up for sale (again) and Nest is interested • Wareable

Hugh Langley:

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Nokia is close to finalizing a sale of its Health division, which is made up mostly of the assets of Withings, the company it acquired in 2016.

Among the interested potential bidders is Nest, the Alphabet smart home subsidiary currently being merged back into Google, according to sources familiar with the matter. Two French companies and one other non-European company are also said to be in the running, as reported by French news outlet Les Echos.

However, following the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political data firm accessed private information of up to 87 million Facebook users, the French government is concerned that a sale to Google in the current climate could be received badly, say sources.

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Nokia never quite figured out what to do with Withings, despite spending €170m on it, acquired “to accelerate entry into Digital Health”. Its smartphone project had died, and thus it had no convincing consumer-facing business. Whose bad idea was it? Let’s rewind to that press release:

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“We have said consistently that digital health was an area of strategic interest to Nokia, and we are now taking concrete action to tap the opportunity in this large and important market,” said Rajeev Suri, president & CEO of Nokia.

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Might not want to count on this year’s bonus, Rajeev. No way Nokia is getting €170m back on this sale.
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Mutliplayer Minesweeper

Yes, it really is. The most timewasting you can all do together. (I couldn’t work out how to flag squares and so played sacrificial lamb, hitting mines instead of marking them.)
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Apple grabs 86% of smartphone profits globally, iPhone X alone seizes 35% • Apple Insider

Mike Wuerthele:

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According to a study by Counterpoint Research seen by AppleInsider, Apple gained one percentage point of the profit year-over-year in a static smartphone market. Not only that, but the iPhone X itself generated five times the profit than the combined profits of over 600 Android manufacturers during the fourth quarter of 2017.

“The share of iPhone X is likely to grow as it advances further into its life-cycle,” said Counterpoint Research Analyst Karn Chauhan. “Additionally, the longer shelf life of all iPhones ensured that Apple still has eight out of top 10 smartphones, including its three-year-old models, generating the most profits compared to current competing smartphones from other OEMs.”

Counterpoint expects more stiff competition in the next year —but it has predicted the same for the last two years, and it has not yet materialized.

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And you can probably count ZTE out of that after yesterday’s news, and Huawei (as above) might have a bit of a problem too. It’s Apple and Samsung all the way: one has the components business locked down, the other has pricing power in spades.
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Facebook admits tracking users and non-users off-site • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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“When you visit a site or app that uses our services, we receive information even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account. This is because other apps and sites don’t know who is using Facebook,” [Facebook product manager David] Baser wrote.

“Whether it’s information from apps and websites, or information you share with other people on Facebook, we want to put you in control – and be transparent about what information Facebook has and how it is used.”

But the company’s transparency has still not extended to telling non-users what it knows about them – an issue Zuckerberg also faced questions over from Congress. Asked by Texas representative Gene Green whether all information Facebook holds about a user is in the file the company offers as part of its “download your data” feature, Zuckerberg had responded he believed that to be the case.

Privacy campaigner Paul-Olivier Dehaye disagreed, noting that, even as a Facebook user, he had been unable to access personal data collected through the company’s off-site tracking systems. Following an official subject access request under EU law, he told MPs last month, Facebook had responded that it was unable to provide the information.

“They’re saying they’re so big the cost would be too large to provide me data,” he said. “They’re really arguing that they’re too big to comply with data protection law, the cost is too high, which is mind-boggling.”

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FCC moves to block wireless carriers from using subsidies to buy Chinese telecom gear • WSJ

John McKinnon:

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US regulators adopted a measure on Tuesday aimed at barring wireless carriers from using federal subsidies to buy telecommunications gear made by Chinese manufacturers.

The vote by the Federal Communications Commission was 5-0.

The measure would prohibit US carriers from using federal universal-service subsidies to buy equipment from companies seen as posing a national security threat. Universal-service subsidies total almost $9bn a year. They support service for high-cost rural areas, for schools and libraries and for low-income consumers and residents of tribal lands.

The FCC will receive public comment and gather more information before approving a final rule in the coming months. Several commissioners suggested they would want to weigh national-security benefits against the plan’s potential effects on consumers.

The plan could hit smaller rural phone companies and internet providers that sometimes depend on Chinese-made equipment. Large wireless providers such as AT&T have long steered clear of Chinese companies like Huawei. Huawei has been effectively barred from big US businesses since a 2012 congressional report alleged the Chinese government could force the company to assist in espionage or cyberattacks—an accusation that Huawei has denied.

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The squeeze on Chinese technology companies is intensifying abruptly. First ZTE, now this.
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How Russian Facebook ads divided and targeted US voters before the 2016 election • WIRED

Issie Lapowsky:

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In the course of her six-week study in 2016, [professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mie] Kim collected mounds of evidence about how the IRA and other suspicious groups sought to divide and target the US electorate in the days leading up to the election. Now, Kim is detailing those findings in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Political Communication. The researchers couldn’t find any trace, in federal records or online, of half of the 228 groups it tracked that purchased Facebook ads about controversial political issues in that six-week stretch. Of those so-called “suspicious” advertisers, one in six turned out to be associated with the Internet Research Agency, according to the list of accounts Facebook eventually provided to Congress…

…Over the last few months, Kim says she’s spent lots of weekends poring over these ads. “It was pretty depressing,” she says. One ad shared by multiple suspicious groups read: “Veterans before illegals. 300,000 Veterans died waiting to be seen by the VA. Cost of healthcare for illegals 1.1 billion per year.”

…The second part of Kim’s research focused on who exactly these unregulated ads—including both standard dark money ads and Russian ads—targeted. She found that voters in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, all states with tight races, were the most targeted. Specifically, voters in Wisconsin were targeted with gun ads about 72% more often than the national average. She also found that white voters received 87% of all immigration ads.

It makes sense that swing states would be more heavily targeted overall leading up to an election. And Kim didn’t analyze the Russians trolls’ targets independently from the other unregulated ads, given the small sample size of 19 groups.

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Facebook somehow didn’t keep this data; fortunately Kim did.
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