Start Up: bitcoin v renewables, porn boost for UK newsagents?, Chinese phone OEM settles with FTC, and more


Google says its Duplex assistant called a real hair salon. Did it, though? Photo by Saffy on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What Google isn’t telling us about its AI demo • Axios

Dan Primack:

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What’s suspicious?

When you call a business, the person picking up the phone almost always identifies the business itself (and sometimes gives their own name as well). But that didn’t happen when the Google assistant called these “real” businesses:

When the hair salon picks up, a woman says: “Hello, how can I help you?”

When the restaurant picks up, a woman says: “Hi, may I help you?”

Axios called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants — including some in Google’s hometown of Mountain View — and every one immediately gave the business name.

There also does not seem to be ambient noise in either recording, such as hair dryers or plates clattering. We heard that in most of the businesses we called, but not in all.

Finally, neither the hair salon nor the restaurant ask for the customer’s phone number or any other contact information.

Axios asked Google for the name of the hair salon or restaurant, in order to verify both that the businesses exist and that the calls were not pre-planned. We also said that we’d guarantee, in writing, not to publicly identify either establishment (so as to prevent them from receiving unwanted attention).

A longtime Google spokeswoman declined to provide either name.

We also asked if either call was edited, even perhaps just cutting the second or two when the business identifies itself. And, if so, were there other edits? The spokeswoman declined comment, but said she’d check and get back to us. She didn’t.

So we sent a new message, this time also copying another member of Google’s communications team. The spokeswoman replied by saying she’d get right back to us.

That was more than a day ago.

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I didn’t link to stuff about Google Duplex previously, because demos– well, you can do anything with a demo. But Google claimed that it was calling local businesses. Primack is doing the essential work of saying “can we just check this?”. And suddenly Google clams up. Pichai said “What you’re going to hear is the Google assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you.”

Some more to come on this, I think. That’s probably a Google employee or similar answering the phone, and we’ll learn that Pichai’s script shouldn’t have said “real businesses”.
link to this extract


Youtube is going to charge more to see ad-free shows like ‘Cobra Kai’ • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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Two years ago, YouTube launched YouTube Red, a service that gave subscribers an on-demand music service, more or less similar to Spotify or Apple Music — as well as access to original programming created just for the service. YouTube Red also removed ads from the world’s largest video service.

All of that cost $10. But now that’s changing.

Next week, YouTube is launching YouTube Music — a revamped version of its existing music service that is functionally the same, but comes with extra bells and whistles like personalized playlists based on your YouTube history and other usage patterns.

That service, which is supposed to soft-launch on Tuesday, will cost $10 a month after a trial period. (That same service will eventually also replace Google Play Music, a rival music service Google has inexplicably operated at the same time it was trying to get YouTube Music off the ground.)

Now YouTube intends to charge $2 more for the other parts of YouTube Red, which will be renamed YouTube Premium — but will require you to also pay for YouTube Music.

That is: If you want to watch ad-free, YouTube original shows like “Cobra Kai,” which appears to have a bit of buzz and four million views, you’re now going to have to pay $12 a month instead of $10 a month.

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Google launches subscription music/video services in the way it launches chat services – they get thrown out there under different names with no obvious differentiation. Rather than putting more things under a single name (Apple with iTunes: was music, added music videos, then video and TV) it throws the same thing out. Confusing as hell, and suggestive of warring product teams with nobody coordinating them all.
link to this extract


Bitcoin’s energy use got studied, and you libertarian nerds look even worse than usual • Grist

Eric Holthaus:

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Bitcoin’s energy footprint has more than doubled since Grist first wrote about it six months ago.

It’s expected to double again by the end of the year, according to a new peer-reviewed study out Wednesday. And if that happens, bitcoin would be gobbling up 0.5% of the world’s electricity, about as much as the Netherlands.

That’s a troubling trajectory, especially for a world that should be working overtime to root out energy waste and fight climate change.

By late next year, bitcoin could be consuming more electricity than all the world’s solar panels currently produce — about 1.8% of global electricity, according to a simple extrapolation of the study’s predictions. That would effectively erase decades of progress on renewable energy.

Although the author of the study, Alex de Vries, an economist and data consultant based in the Netherlands, has shared these calculations publicly before, this is the first time that an analysis of bitcoin’s energy appetite has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

Bitcoin continues to soar in popularity — mostly as a speculative investment. And like any supercharged speculative investment, it swings wildly. Within the past 18 months, the price of bitcoin has soared ten-fold, crashed by 75%, only to double again, all while hedge funds and wealthy libertarians debate the future of the virtual currency.

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Jeez, this is depressing. Libertarian idiots will literally be the death of us all.
link to this extract


Newsagents to sell ‘porn passes’ to visit X-rated websites anonymously under new government plans • The Independent

Colin Drury:

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High street newsagents are to sell so-called “porn passes” that will allow adults to visit over-18 websites anonymously.

The 16-digit cards will allow browsers to avoid giving personal details online when asked to prove their age.

Instead, they would show shopkeepers a passport or driving licence when buying the pass.

The UK’s film censor, the British Board of Film Classification, carried out a public consultation ahead of age-verification laws that are to be introduced this year that will require viewers to prove they are over 18 when viewing certain sites.

The legislation is designed to stop children accessing online pornography.

But there are concerns that asking adults to hand over passport or driving licence details to view adult material could leave them open to data-hacking and blackmail.

Some 56% of British adults admitted to watching pornography in a 2014 study carried out by The Observer.

David Austin, chief executive with the BBFC, told The Daily Telegraph that such a process would be “simpler than people think” to create.

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Well, that’s one way to keep local newsagents alive, I guess, and would return them to their traditional role in British society as the gatekeeper to young boys’ first experiences with scantily clad ladies.
link to this extract


ICE just abandoned its dream of ‘extreme vetting’ software that could predict whether a foreign visitor would become a terrorist • Washington Post

Drew Harwell:

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told tech-industry contractors last summer they wanted a system for their “Extreme Vetting Initiative” that could automatically mine Facebook, Twitter and the broader Internet to determine whether a visitor might commit criminal or terrorist acts or was a “positively contributing member of society.”

But ICE dropped the machine-learning requirement from its request in recent months, opting instead to hire a contractor that can provide training, management and human personnel who can do the job. Federal documents say the contract is expected to cost more than $100m and be awarded by the end of the year.

After gathering “information from industry professionals and other government agencies on current technological capabilities,” ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said, the focus of what the agency now calls its Visa Lifecycle Vetting program “shifted from a technology-based contract to a labor contract.”

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Crouching ovation for this one. You know they’re going to do much the same, but with humans. The reality is that predicting how (a tiny number of) people will become radical or dangerous is difficult; the best indicator, at present, seems to be a record of domestic violence. But that doesn’t fit narratives.
link to this extract


Blu phone maker settles with FTC over data privacy • CNet

Jessica Dolcourt:

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The company behind low-priced, top-selling phones on Amazon has reached a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over privacy practices.

After security researchers discovered in 2016 that Blu’s phones were sending personal data — including text messages, contact lists and locations — to servers in China, the Florida-based company said it would update the software to fix the “mistake.” Eight months later, the same security researchers found that Blu phones were still siphoning off the same data to Chinese servers.  

The issue is tied to preinstalled software from a company called Shanghai Adups Technology. The software, which Blu uses to help update phones, mined data and couldn’t be removed. Blu didn’t tell consumers their phones were sending that data to Chinese servers, according to the FTC.

On Monday, the FTC announced that it has reached a settlement with Blu, in which the company agrees to a security plan regarding security risks with all its devices, both new and old. Blu will also be required to undergo third-party checks every two years for the next 20 years. Blu and its president, Samuel Ohev-Zion, will also be prohibited from misleading the public about how it protects people’s privacy. 

Blu didn’t respond to a request for comment.

«

Low price always comes with a price.
link to this extract


Trump can’t afford to admit his failures with North Korea • The Atlantic

David Frum:

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Throughout his career, Trump has coped with failure by brazenly misrepresenting failure as success.

In 1995, for example, Trump presided over the sale of the Plaza Hotel for $75m less than he had paid for it in 1988. His ownership stake had long since been extinguished, and by then he was little more than a front for the syndicate of creditors who actually controlled what remained of Trump’s portfolio after 1990, when he faced bankruptcy in all but name. Yet Trump insisted of the Plaza purchaser, “I put him through the wringer and made a great deal.”

We should probably expect the Plaza Hotel treatment for the coming Kim-Trump summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID in the argot of the negotiators. That will not be forthcoming. But perhaps something else will: a testing pause, maybe, or some other interim measure that can somehow be upgraded into the promised “great deal.”

The administration may have little choice by now but to carry on the pretense that it is scoring a great success in its Korea negotiations, and for two reasons.

First, US options in the Korean peninsula depend heavily on the cooperation of South Korea. Trump has now thoroughly frightened and alienated South Korean opinion. South Korea’s dovish president, Moon Jae In, was elected with only 41% of the vote. Polls now show his approval rating in the mid-70s, because of his success in drawing Trump away from “fire and fury” and toward negotiations. As Robert Kelly of Pusan National University in South Korea observes, revulsion against Trump has consolidated a dovish consensus in South Korea.

Much of the work of snookering Trump into the Kim summit has actually been done by South Koreans, not North Koreans. It was President Moon who slyly insinuated that Trump deserved a Nobel Prize for the summit—bait that Trump swallowed like a credulous guppy. In fact, it was a South Korean delegation that first put the summit idea into Trump’s head back in March. It was the South Koreans who immediately announced Trump’s impulsive “yes” answer at the very entrance to the West Wing, thus effectively locking the door behind the president before he understood the full implications of what he had done—and before he could be dissuaded by his staff and secretary of state.

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Frum, in common with many professional politicians, is signally unimpressed by Trump’s “dealmaking” skills.
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Trump administration wants to end Nasa funding for the International Space Station by 2025 • The Verge

Loren Grush:

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The Trump administration is preparing to end support for the International Space Station program by 2025, according to a draft budget proposal reviewed by The Verge. Without the ISS, American astronauts could be grounded on Earth for years with no destination in space until NASA develops new vehicles for its deep space travel plans.

The draft may change before an official budget request is released on February 12th. However, two people familiar with the matter have confirmed to The Verge that the directive will be in the final proposal. NASA says it won’t comment on the request until it’s released. “NASA and the International Space Station partnership is committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space,” a NASA spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge. “We will not comment on any leaked or pre-decisional documents prior to the release of the President’s FY19 budget, which is scheduled for February 12.”

Any budget proposal from the Trump administration will also be subject to scrutiny and approval by Congress. But even announcing the intention to cancel ISS funding could send a signal to NASA’s international partners that the US is no longer interested in continuing the program. Many of NASA’s partners still have yet to decide if they’d like to continue working on the station beyond 2024.

The International Space Station has been an ongoing program for more than two decades. It costs NASA between $3 to $4bn each year, and represents a more than $87bn investment from the US government. It’s become a major hub for conducting both government and commercial experiments in microgravity, as well as testing out how the human body responds to weightlessness.

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If the US really is interested in going to Mars – though talking about it might be different from “really interested” – then not having the space station seems remiss. It can’t all be funded by dot-com billionaires. It makes everything feel like the opening scenes of a not particularly good dystopian sci-fi film.
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How Ireland’s abortion referendum became a battleground in the dark digital culture war • The i

Karl McDonald:

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Facebook is grappling with its political influence problems already and prepping transparency tools for US midterm elections – but they weren’t ready for Ireland. “I don’t want Ireland to be the last case study in bad practices,” says Senator Higgins.

Liz Carolan, one of the founders of the volunteer Transparent Referendum Initiative, says part of the problem is that we don’t know why the big tech companies, both of which have European HQs in Dublin, have made the decisions.

On the question of whether the dark money has been favouring one side over the other, she told i: “We don’t know. Facebook has this information, and not just in the sense of booking ads from a company in New York. They’ve got their own information on whether a page that’s buying an ad has overseas connections.”

This vote in particular is on a moral issue that comes with its own very motivated constituencies around the world, she says, and that leads to different challenges. “This referendum is symbolically important to folks outside of Ireland,” says Carolan.

“This is very different to the allegations about the US election where a foreign power, Russia, was trying to influence the result. This is a proxy war. Private companies and individuals in other countries are trying to influence the outcome.”

Young voters also back [the Yes side] strongly: a recent poll showed 67% support among 18- to 24-year-olds.

The No side didn’t take kindly to the changes, calling a press conference to cry foul.

“Anything that has to be done to get this thing passed, clearly will be done,” communications director John McGuirk tweeted after the restrictions on Facebook and Google advertising were announced. “This is rigged.”

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The latter reaction gives a clue about which side has been supported by foreign money funding dark ad spending.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up: bitcoin v renewables, porn boost for UK newsagents?, Chinese phone OEM settles with FTC, and more

  1. It is very unclear to me how this pass system is supposed to work, in terms of obvious questions regarding details.
    What happens if specific pass numbers get shared willingly, or even unwillingly? Where are those stored – what happens if the whole database gets leaked?
    There is a huge amount of infrastructure to make sure credit card numbers are valid, ranging from revocations on suspicious use, to serious criminal penalties for misuse. How far is the government willing to go in creating such infrastructure here?

    • It’s probably going to be more like generating voucher for online stores. No way that that is going to be figured out and duplicated…

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