Start Up: Instagram pets train AI, GDPR’s first success, COBOL forever?, • kills the Android app, and more


It was 20 years ago today (well, yesterday). Photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

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

The original iMac: 20 years since Apple changed its fate • Six Colors

Jason Snell:

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with the rise of the Internet, someone at Apple realized that there was suddenly a huge opportunity to sell people an appliance to let them get online. That was the core idea of the Jeff Goldbum-narrated “There’s No Step Three” TV ad: Plug in the iMac, plug in a phone line, and that’s it—you’re on the Internet. That concept put the “i” prefix in Apple’s product dictionary, where it remains to this day.

Apple’s bold choice to rip out all of the Mac’s traditional ports—Mac serial, Apple Desktop Bus, and SCSI—and replace it with the USB standard that was just starting to emerge in the PC world, was also helpful. It made all of us longtime Mac users cringe—you think the iPhone losing its headphone jack was tough?—but in a stroke it made the iMac compatible with a huge range of peripherals previously only designed to be used on PCs, and it made accessory manufacturers happy because with a low amount of effort the stuff they were making for PCs could now also be sold to new iMac users.

It was very clear, in the days after the announcement, that there would be a lot of those new iMac users. The iMac wasn’t a computer for the existing Mac user base (though we all came along as well, in the end), but for a whole new group—this was a true renewal of the promise, made 14 years earlier, that the Mac was a “computer for the rest of us.”

That original iMac “Elroy” enclosure was radical in an era where all computers were boxy and beige. It was hugely influential on what was to come—both in freeing designers to be more whimsical, with curves and colors and translucency, and in leading to an infestation of translucent blue plastic stuff in the lives of everyone during the late 90s and early 2000s. If you were a plastics manufacturer, translucency and bright colors immediately went into your brochure—because you haven’t lived until you’ve bought an orange semi-clear clock radio.

In fact, as I wrote this article I realized just how far the iMac’s design legacy has gone. My family owns a bright blue first-generation Nissan Leaf. I realize now that for the last year I’ve been driving around an iMac G3.

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The impact that the “Bondi Blue” iMac had on design was colossal: that translucency was aped by the makers of all sorts of products. The computer itself made designers think about Apple again. It was the slipway back to success, as Snell says. (Just don’t mention the mouse.)

Here’s the Steve Jobs presentation, where as Snell points out, he has to spend a big chunk explaining that Apple’s not going bust. (That had been the year before.)

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/oxwmF0OJ0vg?rel=0

Which company is doing the equivalent now?
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Google broke up a Vietnamese con scheme after an employee was scammed buying a Bluetooth headset • South China Morning Post

Jillian D’Onfro:

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When a Google executive found a high-end Bluetooth headset selling at a steep discount on the company’s shopping site earlier this year, he didn’t consider that the deal may have been too good to be true.

He ordered the product and waited. And waited. The expected delivery date passed. He tried calling the website’s customer service number. It was disconnected. The headset never arrived. The money was lost.

In reality, the merchant wasn’t based in the U.S., as its website indicated. Google Shopping had redirected the buyer to a bogus seller, who took the Google employee’s credit card information with no intention of ever sending out a headset.

The prospective buyer kicked the case over to his co-workers to start an investigation. But instead of simply banning the bad actor from listing new products, Google Shopping’s trust and safety team initiated a global probe that ultimately tracked down 5,000 merchant accounts wrapped up in a sophisticated scheme to defraud users.

“I think we caught them right at the tip of when they were trying to scale up,” Saikat Mitra, Google Shopping’s director of trust and safety, told CNBC.

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link to this extract


Your Instagram #Dogs and #Cats are training Facebook’s AI • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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An artificial intelligence experiment of unprecedented scale disclosed by Facebook Wednesday offers a glimpse of one such use case. It shows how our social lives provide troves of valuable data for training machine-learning algorithms. It’s a resource that could help Facebook compete with Google, Amazon, and other tech giants with their own AI ambitions.

Facebook researchers describe using 3.5 billion public Instagram photos—carrying 17,000 hashtags appended by users—to train algorithms to categorize images for themselves. It provided a way to sidestep having to pay humans to label photos for such projects. The cache of Instagram photos is more than 10 times the size of a giant training set for image algorithms disclosed by Google last July.

Having so many images for training helped Facebook’s team set a new record on a test that challenges software to assign photos to 1,000 categories including cat, car wheel, and Christmas stocking. Facebook says that algorithms trained on 1 billion Instagram images correctly identified 85.4% of photos on the test, known as ImageNet; the previous best was 83.1 percent, set by Google earlier this year.

Image-recognition algorithms used on real-world problems are generally trained for narrower tasks, allowing greater accuracy; ImageNet is used by researchers as a measure of a machine learning system’s potential. Using a common trick called transfer learning, Facebook could fine-tune its Instagram-derived algorithms for specific tasks. The method involves using a large dataset to imbue a computer vision system with some basic visual sense, then training versions for different tasks using smaller and more specific datasets.

As you would guess, Instagram hashtags skew towards certain subjects, such as #dogs, #cats, and #sunsets. Thanks to transfer learning they could still help the company with grittier problems. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress this month that AI would help his company improve its ability to remove violent or extremist content. The company already uses image algorithms that look for nudity and violence in images and video.

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Sonos announces June 6th event for new home theater speaker with Alexa • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Sonos just sent out press invites for a June 6th event in San Francisco. The invitation shows a coffee table littered with TV and other home theater remotes and has a simple tagline: “You’re better than this.” The company recently registered a new home theater smart speaker — very likely a successor to the Playbar or Playbase — with the FCC. Documents attached to that filing reveal that the product will include HDMI connectivity and microphones for voice control.

The invite might be alluding to Alexa’s ability to control some TVs and other components of an entertainment setup. An HDMI port would give Sonos’ next speaker more direct control over the big screen in your living room. Sonos has previously pledged to add support for Google Assistant to its voice-enabled speakers as well.

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Strange how the headline is certain about the Alexa-ness, while the story hedges its bets. I don’t think the headline is wrong, but you’d like the story to be more confident.

For Sonos, a soundbar with HDMI ARC (audio return – means you can connect it to more devices, rather than relying on optical-out, which quite a few TVs don’t have) is long overdue. The optical-only Playbar came out in 2013. These days you can get HDMI ARC soundbars for a song. What’s Sonos’s USP in this situation? Sound quality is hard to discern, and doesn’t show up in a spec list; and “play streaming music” isn’t usually a task you give your soundbar. That Sonos IPO needs to arrive in a hurry.
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Improving the Advanced Protection Program for iOS users • Google blog

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Last October, Google launched the Advanced Protection Program, our strongest level of account security, designed to protect the overlooked segment of our users who face an increased risk of sophisticated attacks. These users may be journalists, activists, business leaders, political campaign teams, and others who feel especially vulnerable.

Today we’re announcing that Advanced Protection now supports Apple’s native applications on iOS devices, including Apple Mail, Calendar, and Contacts. This allows iOS users to enroll in the program without having to adjust how they use Google services on their Apple devices.

To protect you from accidentally sharing your most sensitive data with fraudulent apps or web services, Advanced Protection places automatic limits on which apps can gain access to your Google data. Before today, this meant that only Google applications were able to access your data if you were enrolled in the program.

With today’s update, you can now choose to allow Apple’s native iOS applications to access your Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts data. When you sign into iOS native applications with your Google account, you will get instructions on how to complete the sign-in process if you’re enrolled in Advanced Protection. We’ll continue to expand the list of trusted applications that can access Google data in the future. 

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I didn’t even know this existed. (Perhaps it was only offered by invitation?) How is Google going to stop everyone from claiming they need Advanced Protection, I wonder.
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Fail by design: COBOL and banking′s legacy of dark code • DW

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“When these large scale financial systems were developed, they were developed on mini and mainframe [computer] systems,” says Simon Moores, a former UK “IT ambassador” and managing director at Zentelligence Research.

They were big systems with inscrutable names, like HP minis, DEC VAX, Dexcom, or IBM MVS, running in big rooms, creating lots of heat.

“Those things are robust. The best analogy is that of a tank or a Kalashnikov — you can drop it, kick, fill it full of sand and it just works,” says Moores. “It was created with COBOL running underneath, and it was absolutely suitable for the environment and the requirements of the time.”

But over time we’ve added more and more requirements at increasing speed as the technology has advanced, and it’s getting harder to tell how each new layer will interact with the old — especially as COBOL is now what some programmers call “dark code.” All the experts have either retired or died, few universities teach it, and as a result even fewer people can understand or fix it.

When the TSB Bank tried to upgrade its system, it appears the upgrade couldn’t cope with the level of transactions coming in at that same time.

“A slight incompatibility cascades into something catastrophic, and, I would suggest, that maybe nobody existed to be able to look at the code, or even understand the code, because it was compiled [Ed.: source code is compiled or “interpreted” before it is executed], to know what might possibly go wrong — other than to code it with your fingers crossed,” says Moores.  

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This turns into an engrossing piece about COBOL (COmputer Business Oriented Language), which most modern-day programmers will never have come across. (I’ve dipped a toe in, a long time ago.) It’s got one of the strangest, yet logical, structures you’ll ever come across.
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PewDiePie blasts YouTube’s ad revenue in new vlog • Daily Dot

Josh Katzowitz:

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YouTube’s most popular vlogger says he’s not making enough money on the platform.

In a video released Wednesday, PewDiePie, who has 62 million subscribers, said he’s basically a hat salesman these days because of his decreased earnings.

“Honestly, legit, I am making more on selling these hats this month than I’m making on ad revenue, despite uploading daily content,” he said. “Do you understand how bad ad revenue is? I might as well not even call myself a YouTuber, I’m a hat merch, I’m a hat salesman, at this point. That is my profession.

“I really want to thank YouTube for having such a great way of monetizing on their platform. It’s wonderful. I am so thankful.”

PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, has been caught in plenty of controversies that haven’t helped his earning potential. He’s uploaded multiple videos where he’s used anti-Semitic imagery and made anti-Semitic jokes—Disney cut ties with him for that, and YouTube canceled his YouTube Red series—and he casually dropped a racial slur while livestreaming last year. He’s apologized for those mistakes.

Even still, Forbes reports PewDiePie still earned $12m between June 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017—he also made $15m the year before that.

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That inaudible noise? The Tiniest Violin Symphony Orchestra tuning up.
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YouTube has 1.8 billion logged-in viewers each month • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki says that 1.8 billion registered users are watching videos on the platform each month, not counting anyone who’s watching without an account. Wojcicki announced the milestone at YouTube’s Brandcast presentation to advertisers, alongside some of the year’s most noteworthy successes — like Beyoncé’s record-setting 41 million livestream views at Coachella and the “Despacito” music video passing 5 billion views last month. The company previously announced that it had 1.5 billion logged-in monthly users in mid-2017.

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It’s a data point. Well, two.
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Unroll.me to close to EU users saying it can’t comply with GDPR • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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Put on your best unsurprised face: Unroll.me, a company that has, for years, used the premise of ‘free’ but not very useful ’email management’ services to gain access to people’s email inboxes in order to data-mine the contents for competitive intelligence — and controversially flog the gleaned commercial insights to the likes of Uber — is to stop serving users in Europe ahead of a new data protection enforcement regime incoming under GDPR, which applies from May 25.

In a section on its website about the regional service shutdown, the company writes that “unfortunately we can no longer support users from the EU as of the 23rd of May”, before asking whether a visitor lives in the EU or not.

Clicking ‘no’ doesn’t seem to do anything but clicking ‘yes’ brings up another info screen where Unroll.me writes that this is its “last month in the EU” — because it says it will be unable to comply with “all GDPR requirements” (although it does not specify which portions of the regulation it cannot comply with).

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Don’t expect this to be the end. The adtech swamp is getting drained.
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There’s a ⚫ emoji message that crashes any Android app, but it’s no big deal • Android Police

Martim Lobao:

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There’s a message that’s making the rounds on WhatsApp that mysteriously causes the app to crash if you dare to tap on the black dot within. You may have already come across it and wondered how just tapping on a single emoji can cause an app to freeze and become unresponsive. The answer, unsurprisingly, is that it can’t.

The message, which is shown below, is actually made up of more than what meets the eye. You might have even suspected as much if you already noticed that tapping anywhere on the message — and not only on the black dot — triggers the bug. The fact is that there are hundreds (around two thousand, actually) of invisible characters in the message that end up causing Android’s text rendering engine to go haywire and ultimately crash, particularly on older devices. (Some newer phones like the Pixel 2 seem to recover after freezing up and don’t force close the app.)

…the invisible part of the message is comprised of special characters which Unicode uses to specify whether a given text should be laid out right-to-left or left-to-right. These characters are necessary to properly display text in several languages that are written right-to-left, such as Hebrew and Arabic.

There’s nothing wrong with these characters per se. Modern devices have been able to handle LTR and RTL text for decades, even within the same sentence. The issue only shows up when a strange combination of characters triggers some obscure bug in the rendering engine — which is precisely what is happening here. The sequence of two thousand characters switches the text’s orientation back and forth repeatedly, and when the engine can’t handle this string of characters, it locks up and crashes the app. The curious part is that Android is able to display the characters without any issue, but locks up when a user tries to tap the message.

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Not seeing how this is different from the rendering bugs on iOS that cause people to write OMG IPHONE IS BROKEN APPLE CAN’T CODE IT IS DOOMED stories. Those aren’t a big deal either, of course, but the contrast is weird.
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UK regulator orders Cambridge Analytica to release data on US voter • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr:

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Cambridge Analytica has been ordered to hand over all the data and personal information it has on an American voter, including details of where it got the data and what it did with it, or face a criminal prosecution.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) served the enforcement notice to the company on Friday in a landmark legal decision that opens the way for up to 240 million other American voters to request their data back from the firm under British data protection laws.

The test case was taken to the ICO by David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York. As a US citizen, he had no means of obtaining this information under US law, but in January 2016 he discovered Cambridge Analytica had processed US voter data in the UK and that this gave him rights under British laws. Cambridge Analytica had refused to accept this and told the ICO that Carroll was no more entitled to make a so-called “subject access request” under the UK Data Protection Act “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan”.

The ICO did not accept this as a valid legal argument and has now told SCL Elections, which acted as the data controller for Cambridge Analytica, that it has 30 days to comply or appeal. Cambridge Analytica and its affiliates announced this week that they had gone into liquidation, but the ICO has made it clear that it cannot avoid its responsibilities under UK law and states that “failure to comply with this enforcement notice is a criminal offence”.

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The way that Cadwalladr has worked on this story has been like water eroding a stone. Over time, the stone gives up its weakness.
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Telegram messaging app scraps plans for public coin offering • WSJ

Paul Vigna:

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The popular messaging app Telegram has brought in so much money from a small group of private investors that it is calling off a planned sale of cryptocurrency to the wider investing public, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Telegram Group Inc. has pulled in $1.7bn by selling newly created cryptocurrency to fewer than 200 private investors.

The startup, founded by two Russian brothers, has created a groundswell of enthusiasm in the private markets for its next project, which it describes as a digital payments and technology platform that will appeal to a wider audience than established virtual currencies like bitcoin.

Telegram says it is using the money it has raised for the project, called Telegram Open Network, to build out its technology and further redevelop and maintain its main messenger service, which has about 200 million users globally.

The network, which will be built using “blockchain” ledger technology, “can become a Visa/Mastercard alternative for a new decentralized economy,” the company noted in a 23-page description of its plans.

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That’s an average of $8.5m each from those investors. They must think that the “shares” (that’s what they effectively are) will appreciate substantially in value over the coming years.

Cryptocurrencies are becoming investment vehicles kept growing by faith that they’ll keep growing. I’m not sure how sustainable that is.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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