Start Up: did Tidal inflate its numbers?, Europe’s smartphone shrinkage, the fake review economy, and more


If you’re an evolutionary scientist, you think: what if we put this into an MRI scanner and played it Bach? Photo by Nemodus photos on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Number not inflated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TIDAL accused of deliberately faking Kanye West and Beyoncé streaming numbers • Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

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In March 2016, the firm claimed that Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo, a six-week exclusive on its platform, had been streamed 250m times in just 10 days. At the same time, TIDAL claimed that its platform had surpassed 3m subscribers.

These numbers meant that, on average, every single TIDAL subscriber would have had to be playing the Kanye album over eight times a day.

Similar suspicions were triggered by the success of Beyonce’s record-breaking Lemonade a couple of months later.

TIDAL claimed that Lemonade was streamed 306m times on its platform in its first 15 days post-release. Stats like this led Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv to investigate in January 2017 – and uncover documents which, it said, suggested that TIDAL had been deliberately inflating its subscriber figures.

This report was lend credence by data from trusted music industry research firm Midia in the same month, which estimated that TIDAL’s subscriber base actually only included 1m people worldwide.

Now, DN has run an update – following more than a year of journalistic digging. And it’s an absolute jaw-dropper.

Its central accusation: ‘Beyoncé’s and Kanye West’s listener numbers on TIDAL have been manipulated to the tune of several hundred million false plays… which has generated massive royalty payouts at the expense of other artists.’

The newspaper’s investigation was ignited by its receipt of an illicit hard drive, which it says ‘contains ‘billions of rows of [internal TIDAL data]: times and song titles, user IDs and country codes’.

The veracity of the data on this hard drive has been strongly challenged by TIDAL, but according to DN, the numbers match exactly with information received by record labels during the dates in question.

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Oh my. Lemonade is amazing, but you need subscribers too.
link to this extract


Smartphone shipments fall 6.3% in Europe in Q1 2018 • Canalys

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Smartphone fatigue hit Europe in Q1 2018, as shipments fell 6.3% year on year, the biggest ever drop in a single quarter. Western Europe bore the brunt, down 13.9% with 30.1m units shipped. Central and Eastern Europe, though a smaller market, remained a growth region, up 12.3% at 15.9m units, driven by a buoyant Russia.

“This is a new era for smartphones in Europe,” said Ben Stanton, Analyst at Canalys. “The few remaining growth markets are not enough to offset the saturated ones. We are moving from a growth era to a cyclical era. This presents a brand-new challenge to the incumbents, and we expect several smaller brands to leave the market in the coming years.”

Adapting to new market dynamics, the top three vendors all had starkly different results:

• Samsung remained on top, shipping over 15m smartphones, but slipped 15% compared with last year as Huawei and Xiaomi put pressure on its low-end and mid-range models. But the high price of the Galaxy S9, as well as its earlier launch in the calendar year than the Galaxy S8, prompted a drastic rise in its ASP over the previous year, and helped Samsung boost its shipment value by over 20%.

• Apple outperformed the market and shipped over 10m units, but this still represented a 5.4% decline. As a percentage of models shipped, the iPhone X declined slightly from Q4, to around 25%, but it remained comfortably the best-shipping smartphone in the region. Apple’s larger portfolio strategy will become more important as the year progresses, with over 25% of its Q1 shipments the iPhone SE, 6 and 6S – models that are over two years old. This wider spread of shipments did, however, offset the value growth driven by the pricier iPhone X.

• Huawei bucked the trend, growing 38.6% and shipping 7.4m units. It shipped over 1m of its new P Smart in its first full quarter. But the delay to its flagship P20, versus last year’s P10, meant that very few of its Q1 shipments were premium models. Despite its large volume growth, it only managed to boost its shipment value by 1.7% over the previous year. But it will be confident of a rise in ASP as the P20 truly comes into play in Q2.

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That fall in the UK is pretty dramatic – down by a third. That’s saturation at work. And the fifth-biggest supplier might surprise you.
link to this extract


Scientists stuffed a crocodile into an MRI machine to see if it likes Bach • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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This is rather less ridiculous than it might seem at first glance. The team in question was investigating the evolution of complex stimulus processing. Crocodiles have remained phenotypically similar for tens of millions of years; crocodilians like Deinosuchus that lived 80-73 million years ago look quite similar (if much larger) than crocodiles today. The last common ancestor between crocodiles and birds lived 240 million years ago, which makes modern crocodiles an interesting comparison case for both mammals and birds.

And one of the interesting things about mammals and birds is that we handle complex audio processing in areas of our brains that are functionally similar, even if the regions themselves are quite physiologically distinct. The question was, would reptiles show similar functional similarity, or did they evolve an entirely different method of processing this information? The only way to find the problem was to chuck a crocodile in an MRI and play it some music.

This is easier said than done. “The difficulty in scanning crocodiles—beside being a little bit dangerous for the experimenter—is that they are cold-blooded reptiles,”” lead researcher Dr. Felix Ströckens, from the Department of Biopsychology at Ruhr University Bochum, told Gizmodo. “We thus had to find a temperature which allowed us to pick up a good signal and was comfortable for the animal. We also had to keep this temperature stable within the scanner which is relatively difficult since the coils used for scanning also emit heat.”

The crocodiles were tested with a wide range of stimuli, including various colors, simple sounds, and complex audio, with the latter provided by Johan Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

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I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you.
link to this extract


Qualcomm plans exit from server chips • Bloomberg

Ian King:

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The San Diego-based company is exploring whether to shutter the unit or look for a new owner for the division, which was working on ways to get technology from ARM Holdings Plc into the market for chips that are at the heart of servers, the person said. ARM is one of Intel’s only rivals in developing semiconductor designs, and its architecture is primarily used in less power-intensive products, such as smartphones.

Qualcomm is the largest backer of an effort to find a role for ARM designs in the highest end of the computing market, where individual chips sell for multiple thousands of dollars. Chipmakers have been trying for years to provide owners of large data centers – companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc.’s Amazon Web Services – with processors to run them, trying to break into a business that Intel dominates with about 99% market share.

A Qualcomm spokesman declined to comment. In the company’s earnings report last month, Chief Executive Officer Steve Mollenkopf told analysts that Qualcomm is focused on spending reductions in its non-core product areas.

Servers, which crunch data in corporate networks and act as the backbone of the internet, are a much smaller market than phones and personal computers when measured by shipments. But the price that chipmakers are able to charge for the high-performance parts needed to run them makes the market attractive.

Qualcomm began selling a server chip, the Centriq 2400, based on ARM technology last year. At the time, the company said the chips, which were manufactured by Samsung Electronics Co., offered better results than an Intel Xeon Platinum 8180 processor, based on energy efficiency and cost. At the public introduction of the server chip line in November, potential customers such as Microsoft Corp. took to the stage to voice their interest in the offering. Since then, Qualcomm has been silent about its progress.

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Strange; ARM chips for servers seemed like the next big thing a few years ago. But it’s gone nowhere – perhaps because it’s not just about having a cooler chip.
link to this extract


Bail-bond industry suffers another blow as Facebook and Google ban ads • NBC News

Jon Schuppe:

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Google and Facebook, the world’s most dominant online-advertising companies, will no longer take money from America’s for-profit bail bond agencies, siding with a growing national movement to eliminate cash bail from the criminal justice system.

The two tech giants said this week that their decisions to block bail-bond ads were part of a broader effort to protect users from damaging or hurtful content. Typically, that strategy has focused on scams and deception. But that list has recently expanded to include guns, marijuana, payday loans, cryptocurrencies and, now, bail bonds.

David Graff, Google’s senior director of global product policy, said in a statement on Monday that the company was persuaded by studies showing that bail bond agencies profited off poor and minority communities, where people who are arrested often must go into debt in order to post court-ordered bonds that guarantee their return for trial.

“We made this decision based on our commitment to protect our users from deceptive or harmful products, but the issue of bail bond reform has drawn support from a wide range of groups and organizations who have shared their work and perspectives with us,” Graff wrote in a blog post.

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Without a doubt, a good thing. Gambling next? That profits off poor and minority communities too.
link to this extract


Inside Amazon’s fake review economy • Buzzfeed

Nicole Nguyen:

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One morning in late January, Jake picked up the box on his desk, tore through the packing tape, unearthed the iPhone case inside, snapped a picture, and uploaded it to an Amazon review he’d been writing. The review included a sentence about the case’s sleek design and cool, clear volume buttons. He finished off the blurb with a glowing title (“The perfect case!!”) and rated the product a perfect five stars. Click. Submitted.

Jake never tried the case. He doesn’t even have an iPhone.

Jake then copied the link to his review and pasted it into an invite-only Slack channel for paid Amazon reviewers. A day later, he received a notification from PayPal, alerting him to a new credit in his account: a $10 refund for the phone case he’ll never use, along with $3 for his trouble — potentially more, if he can resell the iPhone case.

Jake is not his real name. He — along with the four other reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story — wanted to remain anonymous for fear Amazon would ban their accounts. They are part of an extensive, invisible workforce fueling a review-fraud economy that persists in every corner of the largest marketplace on the internet. Drawn in by easy money and free stuff, they’ve seeded Amazon with fake five-star reviews of LED lights, dog bowls, clothing, and even health items like prenatal vitamins — all meant to convince you that this product is the best and bolster the sales of profiteers hoping to grab a piece of the Amazon Gold Rush. Meanwhile, sellers trying to play by the rules are struggling to stay afloat amid a sea of fraudulent reviews, and buyers are unwittingly purchasing inferior or downright faulty products. And Amazon is all but powerless to stop it…

…Amazon won’t reveal how many reviews — fraudulent or total — it has. But based on his analysis of Amazon data, [ReviewMeta CEO Tommy] Noonan estimates that Amazon hosts around 250 million reviews. Noonan’s website has collected 58.5 million of those reviews, and the ReviewMeta algorithm labeled 9.1%, or 5.3 million of the dataset’s reviews, as “unnatural.”

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If it can be gamed, it will be gamed. If it can be gamed for money, it will be gamed for money. The problem is limiting the scale. Plenty of stories here of scammy products, honest products scammed, and the scammy reviewers.
link to this extract


And for his next act, Ev Williams will fix the internet • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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Echoing Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last month, Mr. Williams said he now believed that he had been too optimistic during social media’s early days, and had failed to appreciate the risks of putting such powerful tools in users’ hands with minimal oversight.

“One of the things we’ve seen in the past few years is that technology doesn’t just accelerate and amplify human behavior,” Mr. Williams wrote. “It creates feedback loops that can fundamentally change the nature of how people interact and societies move (in ways that probably none of us predicted).”
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Mr. Williams has not given up on Twitter, but “I think I was a little bit ahead of some people in seeing the dark side” of social media, he said.

Mr. Williams is only a partial heretic. He acknowledges that social media companies have not done enough to promote high-quality content, but he also blames publishers for amping up sensationalism in order to increase their traffic. And when I asked if he agreed with Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent statement that “the world would lose if Facebook went away,” he demurred.

“I honestly don’t know my answer to that,” he said. “I think it’s probably right.”

But if Mr. Williams isn’t ready to denounce social media, he is at least muting its effects in his own life. He still uses Twitter, but he has turned off most mobile notifications, and he tries to leave his phone behind when he’s with his friends or his kids. He is reading less daily news these days, he said, and more books and long-form articles.

“That’s been healthy for me,” he said. “I feel the effects of that.”

Listening to an architect of the fast-twitch internet extol the benefits of books and magazines is a little odd, like watching Chef Boyardee open a farm-to-table restaurant. But Mr. Williams is not alone among tech leaders in his quest for a slower and more balanced media diet. (Mr. Dorsey, who has been Twitter’s chief executive since 2015, went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in December.)

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link to this extract


China’s ZTE Corp says main business operations cease due to US ban • Reuters

Sijia Jiang:

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ZTE, China’s second biggest telecom equipment maker, was hit last month with a ban from Washington forbidding US firms to supply it with components and technology after it was found to have violated US export restrictions.

“As a result of the Denial Order, the major operating activities of the company have ceased,” ZTE said in the filing.

“As of now, the company maintains sufficient cash and strictly adheres to its commercial obligations subject to compliance with laws and regulations,” it said.

ZTE said it was actively communicating with the US government “in order to facilitate the modification or reversal of the Denial Order by the US government and forge a positive outcome in the development of matters.”

The ban that threatens to cut off ZTE’s supply chain came amid heightened tension over a possible US-China trade war. The Chinese government raised the issue of ZTE last week with a visiting US trade delegation.

ZTE said on Sunday it had submitted a request to the US Commerce Department for the suspension of the ban.

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That’s colossal. But without access to American(-owned) component sources, ZTE was stuffed.

No doubt: this is going to make the Chinese government determined to secure its own component companies. It won’t like having a big player like this liable to shutdown by American fiat. (ZTE was banned for selling equipment to Iran when sanctions were in place.)

Next question being, is Huawei going to be affected somehow?
link to this extract


Leaving on a jet plane: the trade in fraudulently obtained airline tickets • SpringerLink

Alice Hutchings:

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Nohl found flight bookings could be accessed using brute force attacks, whereby common surnames and potential passenger name records (PNRs) are repeatedly tried against airline’s online systems. Furthermore, provided with access to a boarding pass, or a photograph of one (which are readily posted on social media sites), the PNR can be read with the use of a barcode scanner (and are printed in plain text on baggage tags). Malicious actors who access booking systems in such a way could change flight dates or destinations, or request refunds, allowing them to travel under the victim’s name. Some airlines also allow name changes.

Less obtrusively, they could insert or replace a frequent flyer account number, to harvest the traveller’s points. While the new frequent flyer account must be in the same name as the traveller, some airlines allow name changes on these accounts. Furthermore, the PNR includes the passenger’s name and email address, which may be used to send targeted phishing emails requesting confirmation of frequent flyer credentials or payment details. Nohl was also concerned that GDS’ do not properly authenticate users accessing PNRs, do not rate limit attempts to access the system, therefore allowing the brute force attacks to occur, and do not log when PNRs have been accessed, making unauthorised access harder to detect. Nohl’s work is a proof of concept, showing such attacks are possible. It is unknown if these attacks, or variations of them, had already occurred, although some of the vulnerabilities were reported many years earlier.

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This (free to read) article is a real eye-opener about the extent of this fraud, which is reckoned to cost airlines about €1bn annually.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: quite a few people have said that landlines remain a necessity in the US, so that beating spam callers is still a real challenge.

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