Start Up: smart luggage drops out, a Pixel Watch?, two Steve Jobs questions, Gates on Trump, and more


Landsat photo showing the plume from Hawaii’s Kilauea. Free – but for how long? Photo by Stuart Rankin on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Isn’t that how it’s meant to work? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

US government considers charging for popular Earth-observing data • Nature

Gabriel Popkin:

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The ongoing melt of Alaska’s Columbia glacier is revealed in these images captured by the US government’s Landsat satellites in 1986, 1999 and 2017.Credit: Landsat/EO/NASA

The US government is considering whether to charge for access to two widely used sources of remote-sensing imagery: the Landsat satellites operated by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and an aerial-survey programme run by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Officials at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, have asked a federal advisory committee to explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect scientists and other users; the panel’s analysis is due later this year. And the USDA is contemplating a plan to institute fees for its data as early as 2019.

Some scientists who work with the data sets fear that changes in access could impair a wide range of research on the environment, conservation, agriculture and public health. “It would be just a huge setback,” says Thomas Loveland, a remote-sensing scientist who recently retired from the USGS in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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There were charges until 2008; then the USGS made the data available for free, and use increased 100-fold, and there have been dramatic discoveries.

The free data principle applies: the government collects it, people pay for the government, the government should make it free to the people. The benefits to the people and the economy are far greater than revenues minus the cost of administration.

link to this extract


Raden is the second startup to bite the dust after airlines ban some smart luggage • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

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Smart luggage startup Raden announced today that it has shut down and can no longer handle “returns, exchanges or repairs.” It’s the second dedicated smart luggage company to go under this month (following Bluesmart, which ceased operations May 1st) after major US airlines imposed strict rules on suitcases with batteries earlier this year.

The policies that airlines like Delta and American put in place earlier this year most aggressively targeted luggage with non-removable batteries, like the kinds Bluesmart sold. (Bluesmart shut down, but it sold its intellectual property to luggage giant TravelPro.) Raden, meanwhile, sold suitcases with removable batteries, which are still fine to check on most airlines as long as fliers carry the battery in the cabin with them. The company says the companion app — which lets users check the weight of their bag and was supposedly going to enable an ambitious mesh-network style tracking system — will continue to work, too. But the ban, and perhaps the change in sentiment toward smart luggage, will still hit Raden hard, according to the company.

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It’s the lithium-ion batteries; these companies were living on borrowed time (for check-in luggage) as soon as there were problems with Li-ion overheating in luggage. The rest of the story details problems that people who bought Away bags (another brand) have been having.

It was a great idea, sadly screwed by chemistry.
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Pixel Watch investigation: everything we know, and what it needs to succeed • Wareable

Husain Sumra:

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Multiple reports have said Google is prepping a Pixel-branded smartwatch for this year, but what will it look like and what features will it host? That much is still up in the air, but we can certainly start the speculation. Here’s what we know so far, and what we’re hoping to see…

A smartwatch with a better Google Assistant means a more proactive assistant. Dennis Troper, head of product for Wear OS, told Wareable that Google wants Assistant on Wear OS to anticipate how it can help before a command is issued. Think of this like the Pixel’s song identification feature. If there’s a song playing in the background, the song and artist will pop up automatically on your homescreen – no need to Shazam it.

You can likely expect a Pixel Watch to show off how helpful Assistant can be on the wrist, setting an example for the rest of the Wear OS partners. It’d be nice if Google could use Assistant, Google Maps and a new health focus to do things like track runs, or recommend running spots or food places or whatever else from your wrist.

The other thing Google really wants to improve is how Wear OS handles fitness. Troper says we can expect more on this from the Wear OS team this year, and we’re willing to bet a Pixel Watch is where these features will get their big debut.

One of the things Google is working on is proactive coaching, helping with wellbeing and motivating users to stay more active. You can likely expect a Pixel Watch to have at least a heart rate sensor.

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I’d have thought Google would want to pack everything it could in – LTE, GPS, heart rate sensor, any thing it can.
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Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering • The Verge

Vlad Savov, who got hold of an internal Google concept video from 2016 which builds on the “selfish gene” concept to offer the “selfish ledger” idea of huge amounts of data collection about you:

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Building on the ledger idea, the middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone. The examples, which would “reflect Google’s values as an organization,” include urging you to try a more environmentally friendly option when hailing an Uber or directing you to buy locally grown produce from Safeway.


An example of a Google Resolution superimposing itself atop a grocery store’s shopping app, suggesting a choice that aligns with the user’s expressed goal.

Of course, the concept is premised on Google having access to a huge amount of user data and decisions. Privacy concerns or potential negative externalities are never mentioned in the video. The ledger’s demand for ever more data might be the most unnerving aspect of the presentation.

Foster envisions a future where “the notion of a goal-driven ledger becomes more palatable” and “suggestions may be converted not by the user but by the ledger itself.” This is where the Black Mirror undertones come to the fore, with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs. The video then takes a further turn toward anxiety-inducing sci-fi, imagining that the ledger may become so astute as to propose and 3D-print its own designs. Welcome home, Dave, I built you a scale.

Foster’s vision of the ledger goes beyond a tool for self-improvement. The system would be able to “plug gaps in its knowledge and refine its model of human behavior” — not just your particular behavior or mine, but that of the entire human species. “By thinking of user data as multigenerational,” explains Foster, “it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generation’s behaviors and decisions.” Foster imagines mining the database of human behavior for patterns, “sequencing” it like the human genome, and making “increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviours.”

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Soooper creepy. Only a concept, of course.
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What is the most sophisticated piece of software/code ever written? • Quora

Answer from John Byrd, CEO of Gigantic Software, formerly at Sega and Electronic Arts:

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Buckle in.

The most sophisticated software in history was written by a team of people whose names we do not know.

It’s a computer worm. The worm was written, probably, between 2005 and 2010.

Because the worm is so complex and sophisticated, I can only give the most superficial outline of what it does.

This worm exists first on a USB drive. Someone could just find that USB drive laying around, or get it in the mail, and wonder what was on it. When that USB drive is inserted into a Windows PC, without the user knowing it, that worm will quietly run itself, and copy itself to that PC. It has at least three ways of trying to get itself to run. If one way doesn’t work, it tries another. At least two of these methods to launch itself were completely new then, and both of them used two independent, secret bugs in Windows that no one else knew about, until this worm came along.

Once the worm runs itself on a PC, it tries to get administrator access on that PC. It doesn’t mind if there’s antivirus software installed — the worm can sneak around most antivirus software. Then, based on the version of Windows it’s running on, the worm will try one of two previously unknown methods of getting that administrator access on that PC. Until this worm was released, no one knew about these secret bugs in Windows either.

At this point, the worm is now able to cover its tracks by getting underneath the operating system, so that no antivirus software can detect that it exists. It binds itself secretly to that PC, so that even if you look on the disk for where the worm should be, you will see nothing. This worm hides so well, that the worm ran around the Internet for over a year without any security company in the world recognizing that it even existed.

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I hope you’ve figured out what it is, but it’s still worth reading the rest of his answer just for the jawdropping details of what this software did – or does.
link to this extract


GDPR emails highlight variable advice ahead of new data regime • FT

Barney Thompson:

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the thousands of organisations emailing customers asking them to click a box for permission to keep sending them messages are wasting their time — and could inadvertently be damaging their businesses.

Email marketing is covered by a separate piece of legislation — derived from a 16-year-old EU directive on electronic privacy — rather than GDPR. Provided regular messages include an “unsubscribe” option there is unlikely to be any need to contact customers at all.

“In the majority of cases there is no need to send an email to people on your database,” said Eduardo Ustaran, co-director of privacy and cyber security at Hogan Lovells, the law firm. “If they are your customers and you have collected their data in order to provide services, you are entitled to keep sending them emails . . . Some marketing departments are going to be pretty unhappy when they find out that they didn’t need to massively reduce their marketing databases after all.”

This problem is particularly acute for some small and medium-sized enterprises. Matthew Howett, founder of Assembly Research, a telecoms and digital sector analyst, said the advice from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office was “not easy to understand”.

Assembly had emailed clients, he added, but only if they had supplied email addresses on business cards, rather than filling in an online form. Less than one-third of about 700 people had responded so far, which he called “disappointing”.

By asking regular customers for their consent to send more emails, businesses may also have actually made it technically illegal for them to keep in regular contact with those who have not replied.

“If you say ‘we need your consent’ and you don’t get it, the argument must be that you can no longer contact that individual,” said Rohan Massey, a data protection and privacy lawyer at Ropes & Gray.

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I’m fine with that.

link to this extract


Steve Jobs’ secret for eliciting questions, overheard at a San Francisco cafe • Medium

Andy Raskin overheard a “famous CEO” (from a famous-brand internet company) talking to a Young CEO who was puzzled by why people said he wasn’t open to being questioned, when he insisted he was. Turns out that saying “Any questions?” is the wrong question:

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“In the early 2000s,” Famous CEO said, “Jobs was splitting his time between Apple and Pixar. He would spend most days at Apple, but then he would parachute into Pixar. He would have to figure out where his attention was needed really fast, so he would arrange sessions with all the different teams—the Cars team, the technology team, whatever—so there were a dozen or so people in each one. Then he would point to one person in each session and say:

Tell me what’s not working at Pixar.

Famous CEO continued: “That person might offer something like, ‘The design team isn’t open to new technology we’re building.’ Jobs would ask others if they agreed. He would then choose someone else and say:

Tell me what’s working at Pixar.

According to Famous CEO, Jobs would alternate between the two questions until he felt like he had a handle on what was going on.

Famous CEO said he ran sessions like these with his own teams every few months. He advised Young CEO to “never invite VPs” (i.e., team leaders) to the sessions, since subordinates might feel intimidated and share less freely. Instead, Famous CEO would commit, after collecting issues, to discussing them with the VP in charge, who would be responsible for following up.

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I’ve also heard that Bill Gates would insist that everyone who came to him should bring at least some bad news. He didn’t want to hear just about what was going well; he wanted to know the trouble too.
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Bill Gates: Trump twice asked me the difference between HIV and HPV • The Guardian

David Smith:

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Gates himself met Trump for the first time in New York in December 2016, he recalled: “So when I first talked to him it was actually kind of scary how much he knew about my daughter’s appearance. Melinda [Gates’s wife] didn’t like that too well.”

They met again in March last year at the White House. Gates continued: “In both of those two meetings, he asked me if vaccines weren’t a bad thing because he was considering a commission to look into ill-effects of vaccines and somebody – I think it was Robert Kennedy Jr – was advising him that vaccines were causing bad things. And I said no, that’s a dead end, that would be a bad thing, don’t do that.

“Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between HIV and HPV so I was able to explain that those are rarely confused with each other.”

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So perhaps we have Gates to thank that Trump didn’t start an ill-advised anti-vaccination investigation that would have led to the death and/or disability of children as a result of credulous parents.

As to the HIV/HPV thing – the first time is understandable; the second time, with the same person, suggests someone with poor retention.
link to this extract


I don’t know how to waste time on the internet anymore • NY Mag

Dan Nosowitz:

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After college, when I had a real job, with health insurance and a Keurig machine, I would read blogs, funny people talking about nothing in particular with no goal besides being entertaining for a three- to eight-minute block. These were evolutions of the Seanbaby type of writers. Their websites were comparatively elegant, set up for ease of reading. Gawker, Videogum, the Awl, the A.V. Club, Wonkette, various blogs even less commercial than those. There was one that just made fun of Saved by the Bell episodes. I never even watched Saved by the Bell, but I loved that one.

I started a Twitter account, and fell into a world of good, dumb, weird jokes, links to new sites and interesting ideas. It was such an excellent place to waste time that I almost didn’t notice that the blogs and link-sharing sites I’d once spent hours on had become less and less viable. Where once we’d had a rich ecosystem of extremely stupid and funny sites on which we might procrastinate, we now had only Twitter and Facebook.

And then, one day, I think in 2013, Twitter and Facebook were not really very fun anymore. And worse, the fun things they had supplanted were never coming back. Forums were depopulated; blogs were shut down. Twitter, one agent of their death, became completely worthless: a water-drop-torture feed of performative outrage, self-promotion, and discussion of Twitter itself. Facebook had become, well … you’ve been on Facebook.

In the decade since I took that computer class, the web browser has taken over the entire computing experience. There is nothing to “learn” about computers, really, except how to use a browser; everything you might want to do is done from that stupid empty address bar.

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This piece could have been called “Requiem for Wasted Time”.
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The gun-law loophole that entices tycoons and criminals to play cop • Bloomberg Businessweek

Zachary Mider, with an amazing piece about a loophole that lets people sign up as police for tiny places – and then carry concealed weapons all around the US:

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In Oakley, a village of about 300, the police department charged $1,200 to become a cop. It tried to keep the names of some 150 volunteers confidential by saying they could be targeted by Islamic State jihadis. When a list of applicants became public a few years ago, it included out-of-town lawyers and businessmen, a pro football player and the musician Kid Rock.

Action-movie star Steven Seagal got a badge from Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West. So did at least five people linked to a civilian Navy unit in Virginia that became the focus of an unrelated corruption investigation, the Washington Post reported. According to 2016 testimony in the case, members of the Navy unit helped direct $14,000 worth of radio equipment to the sheriff’s office and used their shields to travel the country armed, including on commercial airlines. 

Neither West nor the former Oakley police chief responded to requests for comment.

To qualify for the concealed-carry perk, known as H.R. 218 after the House version of the bill, officers must be authorized to make arrests and carry a gun on duty. An unarmed dispatcher or records clerk doesn’t meet that standard. But in some states, volunteers can carry weapons and make arrests without completing the rigorous certification process required of most full-time cops. In these states, police chiefs and sheriffs can award the privileges to pretty much anyone they want.

That’s partly why nobody knows how big the badge market is. There’s little state or federal oversight, and some localities keep their volunteer rosters secret. 

“This is widespread and widely abused,” said David LaMontaine, a retired deputy sheriff and union official who pushed for state oversight of volunteers in Michigan. Now federal lawmakers, he said, should “close that loophole.”

The risks of policing with volunteers became national news in 2015, when a 73-year-old reservist and donor to the Tulsa, Oklahoma, sheriff’s office accidentally shot and killed an unarmed suspect during an arrest. The reservist was convicted of manslaughter, and the sheriff later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor for covering up an internal report alleging preferential treatment for the donor.

Lake Arthur points to a different problem: men with badges who aren’t doing much police work at all.

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If you have a system, it will be abused. If the system lets you carry deadly weapons, its abuse will kill people.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up: smart luggage drops out, a Pixel Watch?, two Steve Jobs questions, Gates on Trump, and more

  1. I’m middle-aged, not surrounded by fitness nuts. Nobody around me cares about the fitness function of smartwatches, the few people who have one mostly don’t want to miss a notification/text about the kids, and be able to fire back a quick reply.

    I’m still looking for a watch that does just that. I got everyone LG G Watches when they went on fire sale… and there’s nothing obvious to replace them with, all those superfluous sensors make watches and their battery too big, too ugly, too expensive. I’d have gone for Pebbles, if only…

    • Well, the Pebble is around, except it’s sold in effect by Fitbit now. The watches look OK.
      The “fitness nut” thing slightly misses the point. As one gets older, it becomes more important to keep exercising to maintain health; the fitness one takes for granted when young becomes something you have to work for. Heartrate sensors and fitness tracking becomes more, not less, important in that situation. Using the exercise/calories/heartrate/exercise format capabilities of the Apple Watch has made a huge difference to my fitness in the past year, for example.

      • The “I need a smartwatch for fitness” argument reminds me of the “I need a C64 for my accounting” of 35 years ago. I’m sure there are, at the margin, people for which that is true. Mostly though, people with a good life hygiene will have that regardless of a smartwatch, and people who get a smartwatch won’t start exercising because of it.

        Those C64 saw a lot more games than Visicalcs…

  2. Re: luggage, my secret is to have crummy luggage. Nobody will bother stealing those. And a set of clothes in my carry-on.

    Fancy, expensive, complicated luggage is nonsensical.

    • Luggage gets stolen regardless of quality, I think. The point with smart luggage is that it has batteries (for recharging phones) and location trackers.

      • Why would I want my spare battery embedded in a bag ? I use that battery everywhere, with different or no bags, in bed, in tents…

        The location tracking is marginally useful… is there any way to have the airline accept and use the info if they lose the bag ?

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