Start Up No.868: Equifax manager charged, keyboard downfall, the cryptocoin graveyard, Google’s new mobile OS investment, and more

Could a chatbot really do this job better than a human? Photo by Daniel Bachhuber on Flickr.

(No, you didn’t miss 13 editions. I found some lurking, miscategorised. Promise, it’s 868 now.)

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Artisan-made. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Former Equifax manager charged with insider trading •


The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged a former Equifax manager with insider trading in advance of the company’s September 2017 announcement of a massive data breach that exposed Social Security numbers and other personal information of approximately 148 million U.S. customers. This is the second case the SEC has filed arising from the Equifax data breach.  In March, the former chief information officer of Equifax’s U.S. business unit was charged with insider trading. 

In a complaint filed in federal court in Atlanta today, the SEC charged that Equifax software engineering manager Sudhakar Reddy Bonthu traded on confidential information he received while creating a website for consumers impacted by a data breach.


You have to be a special kind of stupid to sell your shares when you’re building the website that’s going to tell people how screwed they are. (Bonthu was told it was being done for “an unnamed potential client” but didn’t take long to figure out it was his employer.). He bought put options (the chance to sell at a specific price) and netted $75,000 after the stock price fell 14%. The SEC says that’s a 35-fold return on his investment. (Exercise: how much stock did he buy?)
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Apple engineers its own downfall with the Macbook Pro keyboard • iFixit

Kyle Wiens runs iFixit, which offers guides to fixing devices of all kinds:


Ask any Touch Bar owner if they would trade a tenth of a millimeter for a more reliable keyboard. No one who has followed this Apple support document instructing them to shake their laptop at a 75 degree angle and spray their keyboard with air in a precise zig-zag pattern will quibble over a slightly thicker design.

This is design anorexia: making a product slimmer and slimmer at the cost of usefulness, functionality, serviceability, and the environment.

A repairable pro laptop is not an unreasonable ask. Apple has a history of great keyboards—they know how to make them. There are very successful laptop manufacturers who consistently earn 10/10 on our repairability scale. Apple fans are already making noise about the dearth of new Macs, especially upgradable options for professionals. Fortunately, Apple seems to be listening with their new warranty program.

Which brings us back to the point. Why did it take so long, and so many complaints, for the repair program to be put in place? Why do you need to send your MacBook Pro away for upwards of a week for a repair? That’s easy: because Apple made their product hard for them to repair, too. Apple’s new warranty program is going to cost them a lot of money.

Apple’s profit on every machine that they warranty under this new program has been decimated. There is a real business impact caused by unrepairable product design. Samsung recently had a similar experience with the Note7. Yes, the battery problem was a manufacturing defect. But if the battery had been easy to replace, they could have recalled just the batteries instead of the entire phone. It was a $5bn design mistake.

But this isn’t just about warranty cost—there is a loud outcry for reliable, long-lasting, upgradeable machines. Just look at the market demand for the six-year-old 2012 MacBook Pro—the last fully upgradeable notebook Apple made. I use one myself, and I love it.


The point about the cost is a good one. This is going to wipe out a lot of profit (the keyboards are glued to the battery, or vice-versa). Perhaps one day the full story of this engineering screwup will be told.
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Cryptocoin graveyard fills up fast as ICOs meet their demise • Bloomberg

Olga Kharif:


That mournful sound you hear? It’s the funeral procession of yet another cryptocurrency.

As the digital money frenzy of the past few years cools, the crypto coin graveyard is filling up. Dead Coins lists around 800 tokens that are bereft of life, while Coinopsy estimates that more than 1,000 have bought the farm.

The carnage is mostly the consequence of failed projects from the thousands of startups that used initial coin offerings to raise billions in funding, and a global regulatory crackdown on questionable practices and scams. Names like CryptoMeth, Droplex and Roulettecoin may have been a clue to the coins’ dim prospects.

“There has obviously been a lot of fraud and hype in the ICO market,” Aaron Brown, a business author and investor who writes for Bloomberg Prophets, said in an email. “I accept figures I have seen that 80% of ICOs were frauds, and 10% lacked substance and failed shortly after raising money. Most of the remaining 10% will probably fail as well.”


Just the fact that there can be a difference of 200 in the number of “dead” coins indicates how many of them there are. I thought this tweet summed up the potential uses far better:


“Blockchains are security software: a cryptographic data structure to *prevent* things. For BTC [bitcoin], it’s double spending. Normal software let’s you do things. Security software restricts things. Unless you can define what a blockchain is helping you prevent, you don’t need one.”


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Exactis said to have exposed 340 million records, more than Equifax breach • CNET

Abrar Al-Heeti:


If you’re a US citizen, your personal information — your phone number, home address, email address, even how many children you have — may have just become easily available to hackers in an alleged massive data leak.

Florida-based marketing and data aggregation firm Exactis exposed a database containing nearly 340 million individual records on a publicly accessible server, Wired reported. Earlier this month, security researcher Vinny Troia found that nearly 2 terabytes of data was exposed, which seems to include personal information on hundreds of millions of US adults and millions of businesses, the report said.

“It seems like this is a database with pretty much every US citizen in it,” Troia told Wired.

Exactis didn’t respond to a request for comment or confirmation.


How many multiple copies of American citizens’ details are there out there? Equifax, this… the list must be long. And there are all these unheard-of companies which do all this “data aggregation”. Though not unheard-of to the hackers.
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Babylon claims its chatbot beats GPs at medical exam • BBC News

Jen Copestake:


The chatbot AI has been tested on what Babylon said was a representative set of questions from the Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners exam.

The MRCGP is the final test set for trainee GPs to be accredited by the organisation. Babylon said that the first time its AI sat the exam, it achieved a score of 81%. It added that the average mark for human doctors was 72%, based on results logged between 2012 and 2017.

But the RCGP said it had not provided Babylon with the test’s questions and had no way to verify the claim. “The college examination questions that we actually use aren’t available in the public domain,” added Prof Martin Marshall, one of the RCGP’s vice-chairs.

Babylon said it had used example questions published directly by the college and that some had indeed been made publicly available. “We would be delighted if they could formally share with us their examination papers so I could replicate the exam exactly. That would be great,” Babylon chief executive Ali Parsa told the BBC.


Anyone remember expert systems? Back in the 1980s, they were going to take doctors’ jobs too. Didn’t. This could be useful as a backup, or assistant.
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The public, the political system and American democracy • Pew Research Center

This dates from April, but it’s still relevant:


Americans don’t spare themselves from criticism. In addressing the shortcomings of the political system, Americans do not spare themselves from criticism: Just 39% say “voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues” describes the country very or somewhat well. In addition, a 56% majority say they have little or no confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. However, that is less negative than in early 2016, when 64% had little or no confidence. Since the presidential election, Republicans have become more confident in people’s political wisdom.

Cynicism about money and politics: most Americans think that those who donate a lot of money to elected officials have more political influence than others. An overwhelming majority (77%) supports limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns and issues. And nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.


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Google invests $22m in the OS powering Nokia feature phones • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Google is investing $22m into KaiOS, the feature phone operating system that has risen from the ashes of Mozilla’s Firefox OS. While Google rules the smartphone world with Android, KaiOS is slowly emerging as a popular choice for feature phones, particularly in emerging markets. KaiOS started last year as a forked version of Firefox OS, and the operating system ships on some Nokia-branded feature phones like the Nokia 8110. Devices from TCL and Micromax are also powered by KaiOS.

Google’s investment might seem odd given its Android dominance, and its efforts with Android Go, but it’s clearly strategic. “Google and KaiOS have also agreed to work together to make the Google Assistant, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Search available to KaiOS users,” says KaiOS CEO Sebastien Codeville. KaiOS itself is web-based, designed for developers to use HTML5, Javascript, and CSS for apps. That makes it easy for Google to get these apps running on KaiOS, and strategically ensure feature phones are using Google’s services and not competitors.


It’s aimed at making sure Google services are available on low-end devices. Strategic, just as Android was strategic – making sure that Google not Microsoft could dominate search on the emerging space of smartphones in 2005.
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Oct 2017: Appeals court keeps alive the never-ending Linux case, SCO v. IBM • Ars Technica

Cyrus Farivar:


A federal appeals court has now partially ruled in favor of the SCO Group, breathing new life into a lawsuit and a company (now bankrupt and nearly dead) that has been suing IBM for nearly 15 years.

Last year, US District Judge David Nuffer had ruled against SCO (whose original name was Santa Cruz Operation) in two summary judgment orders, and the court refused to allow SCO to amend its initial complaint against IBM.

SCO soon appealed. On Monday, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that SCO’s claims of misappropriation could go forward while also upholding Judge Nuffer’s other two orders.

As Ars reported, SCO (then named Caldera Systems) filed suit (PDF) against IBM in March 2003 for allegedly contributing sections of commercial UNIX code from UNIX System V—which the SCO Group claimed it owned—to the Linux kernel’s codebase. SCO Group claimed that the alleged presence of its proprietary code in the open source kernel devalued its proprietary code. By making the source code available, IBM had violated its license agreement with SCO Group, according to SCO. Along the way, SCO filed for bankruptcy, and the group claimed that anyone who used Linux owed them money. All the while, Novell successfully claimed ownership of the allegedly infringing code and agreed to indemnify Linux users.

If SCO is ultimately successful, it could stand to take in billions of dollars from IBM.


I had thought that Apple-Samsung was the longest-running patent case around, but my thanks to Stormyparis who pointed out in yesterday’s comments that this one is, oh my lord, still going. This article dates from October 2017, but since they haven’t wrapped it up, it’s still on.
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Scientists develop thermal camouflage that can fool infrared cameras • The Guardian

Nicola Davis:


The design was inspired by the colour-shifting capabilities of cuttlefish, says Coskun Kocabas, a co-author of the research from the University of Manchester.

The approach involves using electricity to alter the properties of the film, so that it changes from acting more like a “black body” – which absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation but does not reflect it – to becoming more like a metal, which reflects radiation but is not good at absorbing or emitting it.

Kocabas said the film could have a number of uses. “One obvious application is of course camouflage, but the novelty in this is it is adaptive camouflage,” he said, adding it could also be useful for covering radiators on satellites, allowing them to be tweaked to reflect heat when facing the sun and emit excess heat when facing deep space.

Writing in the journal Nano Letters, Kocabas and colleagues in the US and Turkey reveal how they created the material using a stack made of nylon, gold, polyethylene soaked in a liquid composed of charged molecules, and multiple layers of graphene.


Everyone likes inventing invisibility cloaks, which is probably the fastest thing to go from “wild idea in a book/TV series/film” to “actual thing”. (Don’t @ me about Minority Report.)
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There’s no Brexit dividend. Nobody [who can change that] cares • Bloomberg

Therese Raphael:


There is no sign of new free-trade deals to follow or any regulatory overhaul that would turn the UK into a Singapore-on-the-Thames. There is no chance that the EU will grant May the full control she wants as well as the access to EU markets she’s asking for, especially for financial services. Brexit is only the fourth most important item to be discussed at the European summit Thursday and Friday.

Logic might seem to dictate that, at this point, more people should want to call the whole thing off. But far from accepting the Remain case on the economy, the latest troubles have caused Brexiters to dig in, point the finger at business for stoking fears and accuse Remainers of being pessimistic and impatient. Chief Leaver Jacob-Rees-Mogg has dismissed businesses that warn of the costs of Brexiting with “wanting to suck up to the Treasury,” the ministry that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson derided as the “heart of Remain.”

As psychologists of decision-making have found, emotional signals trump objective information for voters. This is evident in attitudes toward immigration, which remain instinctively hostile despite a dramatic drop-off in European migration and skills shortages in parts of the economy, including the health service and technology sectors.

Remainers (some 100,000 demonstrated in London last weekend) point to shifts in public opinion and hope their arguments are holding more sway. It’s true that if you ask people whether they thought the vote was right or wrong, more people now say it was wrong. But it’s far from clear how a second vote would go, or even what the question would be. And it seems that the shift that’s being observed has more to do with those who didn’t vote for Brexit now taking a skeptical view, than Leavers actually changing sides.

Britain is thus caught in a vicious circle. The factors that created Brexit are only being worsened by Brexit, but as the pain grows, it brings more criticism of the establishment, business and other perceived enemies.


I changed the headline: it said “nobody cares”, but actually, a lot of people care. If there actually *were* a demonstrable Brexit dividend, a lot of “Remainers” would be very happy. But there isn’t. And people do care.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.867: Twitter aims at bots, Apple/Samsung settle!, unstoppable IPv4, peak screen?, and more

You think you’re going to win that car in the shopping centre sweepstake? Afraid not. Photo by Conny Sandland on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Count them and report back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter ramps up fight against abuse and malicious bots • Bloomberg

Selina Wang:


For the first time, Twitter is going to require confirmation of an email address or phone number to sign up for an account. The company, which promotes itself as a place for public conversation over news and events, has long been criticized for making it too easy for malicious actors to create multiple spam accounts. Twitter said it would work with experts to make sure the changes don’t harm users in high-risk environments where anonymity is important.

Since the revelations that Russian troll accounts sowed discord on social-media platforms during the 2016 US presidential election, Twitter has released a series of updates to clamp down on suspicious activity. Earlier this year, Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey acknowledged the San Francisco-based company inadvertently helped spread misinformation, harassment and manipulation via bots, or automated accounts. Last week, Twitter acquired security startup Smyte to help fight online spam, abuse and fraud.

“These issues are felt around the world, from elections to emergency events and high-profile public conversations,” Twitter said Tuesday in a blog post. “As we have stated in recent announcements, the public health of the conversation on Twitter is a critical metric by which we will measure our success in these areas.”

The company is also developing machine learning algorithms that proactively find problematic accounts, rather than waiting until someone flags the bad behavior.


It hasn’t previously insisted on confirmation? That’s crazy. Will it apply this retrospectively too?
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Apple and Samsung settle seven-year-old iPhone patent dispute • WSJ

Maria Armental:


Terms of the agreement weren’t disclosed, but the companies filed a notice in California federal court on Wednesday saying that they had reached an resolution and agreed to drop the legal case with prejudice, meaning another complaint can’t be filed on the same claims.

Apple declined to comment, referring instead to its comment last month after a federal jury decided the South Korean electronics giant violated patents related to Apple’s iPhone design. Samsung was ordered to pay $539m.

“We believe deeply in the value of design,” the company said at the time. “This case has always been about more than money. Apple ignited the smartphone revolution with iPhone, and it is a fact that Samsung blatantly copied our design.”


Can we say finally?
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Another ten years later • The ISP Column

Geoff Huston reflects on the changes – and non-changes – of internet infrastructure over the past ten years:


The most notable aspect of the network that appears to stubbornly resist all forms of pressure over the last decade, including some harsh realities of acute scarcity, is the observation that we are still running what is essentially an IPv4 Internet.

Over this past decade we have exhausted our pools of remaining IPv4 addresses, and in most parts of the world the IPv4 Internet is running on some form of empty. We had never suspected that the Internet would confront the exhaustion of one its most fundamental pillars, the basic function of uniquely addressing connected devices, and apparently shrug it off and continue on blithely. But, unexpectedly, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Today we estimate that some 3.4 billion people are regular users of the Internet, and there are some 20 billion devices connected to it. We have achieved this using some 3 billion unique IPv4 addresses. Nobody thought that we could achieve this astonishing feat, yet it has happened with almost no fanfare.

Back in the 1900’s we had thought that the prospect of address exhaustion would propel the Internet to use IPv6. This was the successor IP protocol that comes with a four-fold increase in the bit width of IP addresses. By increasing the IP address pool to some esoterically large number of unique addresses (340 undecillion addresses, or 3.4 x 1038) we would never have to confront network address exhaustion again. But this was not going to be an easy transition. There is no backward compatibility in this protocol transition, so everything has to change. Every device, every router and even every application needs to change to support IPv6. Rather than perform comprehensive protocol surgery on the Internet and change every part of the infrastructure to support IPv6, we changed the basic architecture of the Internet instead. Oddly enough, it looks like this was the cheaper option!


Yeah, one tends to forget this. “IPv4 exhaustion” stories were all over the place a couple of years back. Now? Nothing.
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We have reached peak screen. Now revolution is in the air • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo reckons we’ve had enough of screens:


There are two ways we may break our fevered addiction to screens.

First, we will need to try to use our phones more mindfully, which requires a combination of willpower and technology.

Help is on the way. For the last week, I’ve been using Screen Time, one of the new features in Apple’s next version of its mobile operating system. The software gives you valuable information about how much you are using your phone, and it can even block you from using apps that you deem unhealthy. I found Screen Time very well designed, and I suspect it will profoundly change how we use our phones.

But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.

These are all works in progress. Voice assistants still cannot do everything for you, though Google and Amazon have thousands of engineers working to improve them. AirPods are fantastic — they have fewer connection issues than any other wireless headphones — and after years of refinement, the Apple Watch shows you just enough stuff from your phone to make it useful without becoming overbearing.


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Feds ran a bitcoin-laundering sting for over a year • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


More than 40 alleged dark-web drug dealers have been arrested as part of a sweeping federal effort described by the Department of Justice as “the first nationwide undercover operation targeting dark net vendors.” The core of the operation was an online money-laundering business seized by agents from Homeland Security Investigations and operated as a sting for over a year. By offering cash for bitcoin, HSI agents were able to identify specific drug dealers, ultimately tracing more than $20 million in drug-linked cryptocurrency transactions.

“For the past year, undercover agents have been providing money-laundering services to these dark net vendors, specifically those involved in narcotics trafficking,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge Angel Melendez, in a press conference earlier today. Melendez led the operation from New York.

The hijacked money-laundering service was offered across a number of different marketplaces, with agents claiming at least some presence on AlphaBay, Dream Market, Wall Street, and others. In the past, law enforcement efforts have focused on taking down marketplaces in full, most notably Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, and AlphaBay. But Melendez says his office has shifted focus to the individual dealers, who often operate independent of any single site.


And now look at the sorts of drugs they were targeting:


the same raids seized large quantities of Schedule IV pharmaceuticals — including 100,000 tramadol pills and over 24 kilograms of Xanax — as is typical of trade on dark net markets. Agents also recovered more than 300 models of liquid synthetic opioids and roughly 100 grams of fentanyl.


They haven’t specified how they matched the wallets to the drug buys. Which would have been useful.
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North Korea is rapidly upgrading nuclear site despite summit vow • WSJ

Jonathan Cheng:


North Korea is upgrading its nuclear research center at a rapid pace, new satellite imagery analysis suggests, despite Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization at a summit with the US this month.

The analysis from 38 North, a North Korea-focused website published by the Stimson Center in Washington, found that Pyongyang, in recent weeks, appears to have modified the cooling system of its plutonium-production reactor and erected a new building near the cooling tower. New construction could also be observed at the site’s experimental light-water reactor, the report said.

The satellite pictures, captured on June 21, nine days after the Singapore summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, showed no immediate effort to begin denuclearization at North Korea’s key nuclear research site.


Oh well, we tried. Still, at least they’ve given up that nuclear site that collapsed. Um.
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Samsung will shut down Bixby feature that bribed you to use it • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Samsung’s Bixby assistant had a rough time of it. Not only did no one want to use the assistant, but Samsung even recognized that it’d have to bribe users to do so. The company announced this week that it’s shutting down those gamification efforts — called My Bixby Level — on August 10th. The feature rewarded users for playing with and learning how to use Bixby. They received new background color options and Samsung Pay points that could be cashed in for discounts or toward contest entries to win Samsung products. The background colors will still be available to use and might be made available to everyone; it’s unclear from Samsung’s messaging.


Sooo.. is Bixby continuing? Guess so. But as it says, not clear whether this is a good or bad sign.
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Google and Facebook accused of manipulating users in privacy settings • Fortune

David Meyer:


In a report called “Deceived By Design,” the Norwegian Consumer Council accused Facebook and Google—as well as Microsoft with Windows 10, to a lesser extent—of employing “design, symbols and working that nudge users away from the privacy friendly choices.”

Facebook and Google come under particular criticism for threatening users “with loss of functionality or deletion of the user account if the user does not choose the privacy intrusive option.”

“These companies manipulate us into sharing information about ourselves,” said Finn Myrstad, the watchdog’s director of digital services. “This shows a lack of respect for their users, and [the companies] are circumventing the notion of giving consumers control of their personal data.”

Is this all illegal, though? The consumer authorities argue it is, because the new EU privacy regime says people have to genuinely consent to having their personal data processed by tech companies. “However, the practices deployed by companies raise questions as to whether consent in this case can be considered informed and freely given,” reads the Norwegian Consumer Council’s letter to that country’s data protection authority.

The letter also says users aren’t “given the full picture” about how their information will be used, and the privacy settings “make it difficult for individuals to protect their personal data.” Both of these may also violate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—a law that threatens companies with fines of up to 4% of global annual revenues for serious violations.


The NCC report is in English, and well worth reading.
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Why nobody ever wins that car giveaway at the mall • The Hustle

Zachary Crockett dug into what’s really going on:


The car is a loaner from local dealer, Acura of Fremont — and despite what the sweepstakes’ marketing may suggest, it’s not up for grabs. (We called the dealer and they confirmed that the vehicle on display isn’t part of the giveaway at all.)

What you’re really signing up for is the opportunity to win an opportunity to possibly win a small amount of taxable cash.

Here’s what actually happens: 1) You enter the sweepstakes; 2) You have to attend a 90-minute timeshare presentation; 3) You get a scratch-off lotto ticket; 4) If you’re a “grand prize winner,” you get to play a game for a chance to win $100k.

The “game” is that the finalist gets to open 4 “mystery envelopes” with random amounts of cash. Last year’s two “big winners” walked away with checks for $575 and $700 — about enough to buy one side view mirror for your Acura..

That’s the absolute best-case scenario of entering one of these contests. Other aren’t so lucky.

Days after entering to win the car, Maggie Nicholson received a call informing her that her name was drawn. After sitting through a 2-hour timeshare presentation with Boiler Room-like sales tactics, she was told there was no car — but she was eligible for a vacation package.


And then there’s the way all your details get sold on, and sold on, and sold on… and you give up your do not call rights.
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Talking to Google Duplex: Google’s human-like phone AI feels revolutionary • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo got invited to a restaurant to be the head waiter (for phone calls):


this was much more than I was expecting: Google PR, Google engineers, restaurant staff, and several other journalists were intently watching and listening to me take this call over the speaker. I was nervous. I’ve never taken a restaurant reservation in my life, let alone one with an audience and an engineering crew monitoring every utterance. And you know what? I sucked at taking this reservation. And Duplex was fine with it.

Duplex patiently waited for me to awkwardly stumble through my first ever table reservation while I sloppily wrote down the time and fumbled through a basic back and forth about Google’s reservation for four people at 7pm on Thursday. Today’s Google Assistant requires authoritative, direct, perfect speech in order to process a command. But Duplex handled my clumsy, distracted communication with the casual disinterest of a real person. It waited for me to write down its reservation requirements, and when I asked Duplex to repeat things I didn’t catch the first time (“A reservation at what time?”), it did so without incident. When I told this robocaller the initial time it wanted wasn’t available, it started negotiating times; it offered an acceptable time range and asked for a reservation somewhere in that time slot. I offered seven o’clock and Google accepted.

From the human end, Duplex’s voice is absolutely stunning over the phone. It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking. The bot “ums” and “uhs” when it has to recall something a human might have to think about for a minute. It gives affirmative “mmhmms” if you tell it to hold on a minute. Everything flows together smoothly, making it sound like something a generation better than the current Google Assistant voice.

One of the strangest (and most impressive) parts of Duplex is that there isn’t a single “Duplex voice.” For every call, Duplex would put on a new, distinct personality. Sometimes Duplex come across as male; sometimes female. Some voices were higher and younger sounding; some were nasally, and some even sounded cute.


The people who took part were all very impressed. But Google says it will have humans to act as backup, just in case.
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Facebook scraps plans to build drone to deliver internet access • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The drone, named Aquila by the company, was initially created by British aerospace engineer Andrew Cox, whose company Ascenta was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $20m (£15m). It was folded into Facebook’s project, which had a stated goal of “connecting the whole world”, and was intended to be used to fly at a higher altitude than commercial planes, relaying laser-based internet signals down to base-stations on the ground.

Now, however, Facebook says it will no longer design and construct its own aircraft. Yael Maguire, the company’s director of engineering, said that the decision was prompted by the growing interest in the field from aerospace companies, which left Facebook’s own efforts superfluous.

“Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on Haps [high altitude platform station] connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries,” Maguire wrote in a blogpost announcing the closure of the Bridgwater facility, where Aquila was built.

The announcement comes a day after a report from Business Insider revealing that Cox had left Facebook in May.

Aquila’s history at Facebook was mixed. Maguire touts successes including “two successful full-scale test flights”, and “setting new records using millimeter-wave (MMW) technology in air-to-ground and point-to-point communication,” but the drone project also resulted in criticism for the company, which was accused of covering up a crash at the end of a test flight which the company had previously told reporters was successful.


One by one, the lights are going out all over Silicon Valley’s big dreamland. Anyone checked in on Google’s Loon project recently?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yes, I’ve started numbering them. Turns out it’s quite a lot already.

Start Up: California’s privacy race, driving Amazon Flex, anthropomorphic keyboards, the $1bn digital heist, and more

It’s 0.4% the size of Google. So how does it make money? Photo by pixishared on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Back on track. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

California has 48 hours to pass this privacy bill or else • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill:


Recent headlines have suggested that California lawmakers are considering a bill that would give Californians “unprecedented control over their data.” This is true but that is not the whole story.

What’s really happening is that California lawmakers have 48 hours to pass such a bill or the policy shit is going to hit the direct democracy fan. Because if lawmakers in the California Senate and House don’t pass this bill Thursday morning, and if California governor Jerry Brown doesn’t sign this bill into law Thursday afternoon, a stronger version of it will be on the state ballot in November. Then the 17 million or so people who actually vote in California would decide for themselves whether they should have the right to force companies to stop selling their data out the back door. Polls predict they would vote yes, despite the claims of tech companies that passage of the law would lead to businesses fleeing California. And laws passed via the ballot initiative process, rather than the legislative process, are almost impossible to change, so California would likely have this one on its books for a very long time.

This, more than, say, an urgent need to address the data scandals that have dominated the tech industry so far this year, is why lawmakers are scrambling to get a bill passed.


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What is the revenue generation model for DuckDuckGo? • Quora

Gabriel Weinberg is the CEO of, a search engine that he says has been profitable since 2014 – without tracking users at all. So why don’t Google and Facebook give up trackers?


Google now deploys hidden trackers on 76% of websites across the web to monitor your behavior and Facebook has hidden trackers on about 25% of websites, according to the Princeton Web Transparency & Accountability Project. It is likely that Google and/or Facebook are watching you on most sites you visit, in addition to tracking you when using their products.

As a result, these two companies have amassed huge data profiles on individuals, which can include interests, past purchases, search, browsing and location history, and much more. This personal data is stored indefinitely and used for invasive targeted advertising that can follow you around the Internet.

This advertising system is designed to enable hyper-targeting, which has many unintended consequences that have dominated the headlines in recent years, such as the ability for bad actors to use the system to influence elections, to exclude groups in a way that facilitates discrimination, and to expose your personal data to companies you’ve never even heard of.

The operative question is, though, is all of this tracking necessary to make substantial profits? Is this the only way to run a profitable digital consumer focused service company? Not in my opinion. The fact is, these companies would still be wildly profitable if, for example, they dropped all of these hidden trackers across the web and limited the amount of data they keep to only what is most necessary.

Yes, this additional tracking probably helps them compete with each other and adds some incremental revenue, but I believe the vast majority of their revenue would still exist if the tracking dial was turned way down, and they backed far away from the creepy line.

The reason is simple: Google and Facebook are the undisputed champions of audience and reach across the internet, something advertisers will always pay for. Their business models don’t need to be this invasive.


DDG (which I use) now has 20m queries per day; in 2014 it went from 2.7m to 5.4m queries per day. It must be very profitable now with that much larger search volume. (Google handles more than 5bn search queries per day.)
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The day I drove for Amazon Flex • The Atlantic

Alana Semuels:


On the surface, these jobs, like many others in the gig economy, seem like a good deal. But Flex workers get no health insurance or pension, and are not guaranteed a certain number of hours or shifts a week. They are not covered by basic labor protections like minimum wage and overtime pay, and they don’t get unemployment benefits if they suddenly can’t work anymore. And when workers calculate how much they’re pulling in on a daily basis, they often don’t account for the expenses that they’ll incur doing these jobs. “A lot of these gig-type services essentially rely on people not doing the math on what it actually costs you,” Sucharita Kodali, a Forrester analyst who covers e-commerce, told me.

One Amazon Flex driver in Cleveland, Chris Miller, 63, told me that though he makes $18 an hour, he spends about 40 cents per mile he drives on expenses like gas and car repairs. He bought his car, used, with 40,000 miles on it. It now has 140,000, after driving for Flex for seven months, and Uber and Lyft before that. That means he’s incurred about $40,000 in expenses—things he didn’t think about initially, like changing the oil more frequently and replacing headlights and taillights. He made slightly less than $10 an hour driving for Uber, he told me, once he factored in these expenses; Flex pays a bit better.

Miller’s wife has a full-time job with benefits, so his Flex earnings are helpful for paying off his family’s credit-card bills. But “if I were trying to make this work as a single guy on my own, it would be tough to do that,” he said. His costs might actually be lower than what most drivers spend: The standard mileage rates for use of a car for business purposes, according to the IRS, are 54.5 cents a mile in 2018.

I became an Amazon Flex independent contractor by downloading an app, going through a background check, and watching 19 videos that explained in great detail the process of delivering packages.


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Two Keyboards at a Bar • Rands in Repose

Michael Lopp:


APPLE EXTENDED II sits at the bar nursing a Macallan 18. Next to him is MACBOOK PRO who has not taken a sip of his glass of water.

APPLE EXTENDED II: Lonely times, man. Lonely times. First, it was scissors then butterflies. Do you want to know what I miss? Electric Alps switches. That was the dream, right?

MACBOOK PRO (nervous, staring at the bar, napkins in both hands): Did you clean up before I sat down? It looks clean, but…

APPLE EXTENDED II (interrupting): Kids today. They don’t appreciate the reliable, credible haptic feedback of a single healthy keystroke. It’s all hunt, peck, and swipe swipe swipe.

TOUCHBAR (arrives): Hey! Nobody told me we were going out to drinks . This is great!

APPLE EXTENDED II: Wait, who invited him?

MACBOOK PRO: Sorry, we’re a package deal. It’s not…


Brilliant. Stemming, of course, from John Gruber’s wonderful set:
“The iTunes 5 Announcement From the Perspective of an Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal User Interface Theme” (2005)
“iLife ’06 From the Perspective of an Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal Interface” (2006) and
“An Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal Interface Theme Shows Up for the WWDC Preview Build of Mac OS X Leopard” (2007)
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Yelp, The Red Hen, and how all tech platforms are now pawns in the culture war • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel:


Though the brigading of review sites and doxxing behavior isn’t exactly new, the speed and coordination is; one consequence of a never-ending information war is that everyone is already well versed in their specific roles. And across the internet, it appears that technology platforms, both big and small, must grapple with the reality that they are now powerful instruments in an increasingly toxic political and cultural battle. After years attempting to dodge notions of bias at all costs, Silicon Valley’s tech platforms are up against a painful reality: They need to expect and prepare for the armies of the culture war and all the uncomfortable policing that inevitably follows.

Policing and intervening isn’t just politically tricky for the platforms, it’s also a tacit admission that Big Tech’s utopian ideologies are deeply flawed in practice. Connecting everyone and everything in an instantly accessible way can have terrible consequences that the tech industry still doesn’t seem to be on top of. Silicon Valley frequently demos a future of seamless integration. It’s a future where cross-referencing your calendar with Yelp, Waze, and Uber creates a service that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an appealing vision, but it is increasingly co-opted by its darker counterpart, in which major technology platforms are daisy-chained together to manipulate, abuse, and harass…

…The tech industry likes to talk, with increasing zeal, about the power of machine learning. Yet when it can’t prevent something simple, like a sudden influx of restaurant reviews from people hundreds or thousands of miles away (identifying users’ locations is trivial), it plays into the hands of those who want to wage information war.

Meanwhile, pro-Trump trolls, as well as supporters of Sanders and the administration, are accusing Yelp of “censoring” reviews. Kirk suggested that brigading restaurant reviews was a just consequence of refusing a diner service. “This is the market at work,” he tweeted (Kirk’s rationale knowingly misrepresents Yelp’s role as a site that should reflect customer experience, not the political opinion of any outraged bystander).


But, as Warzel also points out, it doesn’t have to be this way. (Though he doesn’t make suggestions, some sort of circuit-breaker – stopping reviews when too many come in, or they’re too low or high – would make sense.)
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The biggest digital heist in history isn’t over yet • Bloomberg

Charlie Devereux , Franz Wild , and Edward Robinson:


Before WannaCry, before the Sony Pictures hack, and before the breaches that opened up Equifax and Yahoo!, there was a nasty bit of malware known as Carbanak. Unlike those spectacular attacks, this malware wasn’t created by people interested in paralyzing institutions for ransom, publishing embarrassing emails, or taking personal data. The Carbanak guys just wanted loot, and lots of it.

Since late 2013, this band of cybercriminals has penetrated the digital inner sanctums of more than 100 banks in 40 nations, including Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S., and stolen about $1.2 billion, according to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. The string of thefts, collectively dubbed Carbanak—a mashup of a hacking program and the word “bank”—is believed to be the biggest digital bank heist ever. In a series of exclusive interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek, law enforcement officials and computer-crime experts provided revelations about their three-year pursuit of the gang and the mechanics of a caper that’s become the stuff of legend in the digital underworld.

Besides forcing ATMs to cough up money, the thieves inflated account balances and shuttled millions of dollars around the globe. Deploying the same espionage methods used by intelligence agencies, they appropriated the identities of network administrators and executives and plumbed files for sensitive information about security and account management practices. The gang operated through remotely accessed computers and hid their tracks in a sea of internet addresses. “Carbanak is the first time we saw such novel methods used to penetrate big financial institutions and their networks,” says James Chappell, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Digital Shadows Ltd., a London intelligence firm that works with the Bank of England and other lending institutions. “It’s the breadth of the attacks, that’s what’s truly different about this one.”


Sounds a bit like a nation-state player who decided to mint it.
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Google criticised for push against EU copyright reform • Financial Times

Matthew Garrahan and Mehreen Khan:


Google has sparked criticism by encouraging news publishers participating in its Digital News Initiative to lobby against proposed changes to EU copyright law at a time when the beleaguered sector is increasingly turning to the search giant for help.

Google opposes the copyright directive, which it says would impede the free flow of information, and in a recent email to publishers suggested they contact members of the European Parliament to express their views.

The search engine has developed close ties with publishers via its DNI programme, which provides support for digital journalism as well as innovation grants from a €150m fund.

In the email to the members of the DNI working group — and which has been seen by the FT — Madhav Chinnappa, Google’s director of strategic relations, wrote that the “timing is urgent” and provided a link to a directory of MEPs. “If you feel strongly about this, please consider contacting the MEPs,” he said.

Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, said the company had gone too far. “It’s outrageous that Google would once again be using a forum it publicly convened to help the publishing industry as a vehicle to lobby on behalf of Google’s own interests and confuse the market,” he said.


You can sort of understand Google’s position. But it wasn’t a clever move.
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Oldest domains in the .com, .net, and .org TLDs •

Frederic Cambus:


As someone interested in DNS and Internet history, I’ve always been enjoying facts and articles about early registered domain names. Wikipedia has a page on the subject, but the list is extremely short for .net and .org domains.

Using the DDN NIC domain summaries, it shouldn’t be too difficult to extract a list of domains, perform whois queries to get registration dates, and sort the results. Let’s find out.

For the record, the oldest issue I could find, dating from December 1987, doesn’t list, the first .net domain ever registered. So I opted for the August 1995 edition to be on the safe side. While I could also find an issue from 1996, there are a lot more domains listed so the whois lookups would take a lot more time, for no evident benefit.


Looking through the dot-coms is quite the history lesson.
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Europe’s first solar panel recycling plant opens in France • Reuters

Geert de Clercq:


The first ageing photovoltaic (PV) panels – which have lifespans of around 25 years – are just now beginning to come off rooftops and solar plants in volumes sufficiently steady and significant to warrant building a dedicated plant, Veolia said.

Up until now, ageing or broken solar panels have typically been recycled in general-purpose glass recycling facilities, where only their glass and aluminum frames are recovered and their specialty glass is mixed in with other glass. The remainder is often burned in cement ovens.

In a 2016 study on solar panel recycling, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said that in the long term, building dedicated PV panel recycling plants makes sense. It estimates that recovered materials could be worth $450 million by 2030 and exceed $15 billion by 2050.

The robots in Veolia’s new plant dissemble the panels to recuperate glass, silicon, plastics, copper and silver, which are crushed into granulates that can used to make new panels.

A typical crystalline silicon solar panel is made up of 65-75% glass, 10-15% aluminum for the frame, 10% plastic and just 3-5% silicon. The new plant does not recycle thin-film solar panels, which make up just a small percentage of the French market.


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Chinese group engaging in cyber espionage against US companies, report says • Fox News

Brooke Crothers:


One of the most disturbing attacks was directed at a satellite communications operator, Symantec said.

“The attack group seemed to be particularly interested in the operational side of the company, looking for and infecting computers running software that monitors and controls satellites, “Symantec said. “This suggests to us that Thrip’s motives go beyond spying and may also include disruption.” 

Another target was an organization involved in geospatial imaging and mapping. In this case, Thrip targeted computers running MapXtreme GIS (Geographic Information System) as well as machines running Google Earth Server and Garmin imaging software.

Other targets included three different telecoms operators, all based in Southeast Asia.

“In all cases…it appeared that the telecoms companies themselves and not their customers were the targets of these attacks,” Symantec added.

There was also a defense contractor that was targeted. When asked by Fox News, Symantec would not elaborate on the nature of the threat or the defense contractor’s identity.


This sort of stuff has been going on literally for years.
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Why North Korea’s hacking should have been on the agenda at the Trump-Kim summit • Fast Company

Tim Bajarin:


Prevention of nuclear war needed to be a top priority in the five-hour meeting, but to ignore the hacking threat that North Korea poses is irresponsible. The harm that could be caused by cyber warfare may seem less immediate than that from nuclear war, but it’s a major threat that could easily escalate to more direct forms of warfare.

“The reason North Korea has been harassing other countries is to demonstrate that North Korea has cyber-war capacity,” a North Korean defector told the BBC in 2015. “Their cyber attacks could have similar impacts as military attacks, killing people and destroying cities.”

North Korean hackers attacked private ATM accounts in South Korea to steal money from private citizens, and, more recently, they have been taking aim at banks around the world, including the US Federal Reserve.

The Daily Beast reported that North Korea may also be planning to attack the US power grid, something that could paralyze our financial systems, and demobilize major cities around the country.


Bajarin mentions Wannacry, but not the possibility that somebody could have died due to the ransomware infections of hospitals in the UK. (No deaths have been ascribed to it as far as I know, but it was probably a close thing.) In that sense, North Korea’s cyber threat has already come much closer to killing people than its nuclear one.

By the way, I discuss North Korea’s focus on hacking as a nation state priority in my book Cyber Wars
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You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: ask a chatbot!, Alexa and manners, Brexit’s hedge fund profiteers, death of the phone, and more

Intel dominated the chip industry for years. What went wrong? Photo by Mark Sze on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Because WordPress sometimes decides to ignore the “category” tag for blogposts when I upload it, and because the correct category is essential for posts to go out by email, and because I expect computers not to change these things on their own and so didn’t check it, Monday’s post didn’t go out by email. You can find it here.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The laws behind ‘Fortnite’s’ PS4, Nintendo Switch woes • Variety

Trevor Ruben:


When Epic and Nintendo dropped Fortnite on the day of Nintendo’s E3 showcase, fulfilling the expectations of many and finally delivering unto the Nintendo Switch the world’s most popular game, a significant number of players were met with a second surprise. They encountered an unexpected roadblock when trying to load the in-game purchases they had made on another platform: “This Fortnite account is associated with a platform which does not allow it to operate on Switch.”

That platform was the PS4, and had that player loaded their account for even one second previously on a PS4, whatever purchases they made on that account and whatever progress they had achieved were now locked to that console, with no recourse. PS4 players cannot transfer their account to another video game console, nor completely disassociate their account with the PS4.

They were, and still are, stuck. One might ask if this kind of restriction is legal, considering the vast and possibly embarrassing amount of money some might have spent on the game. The answer to that is there is no answer. Our current laws simply fail to acknowledge the problem. In fact, our legal system exacerbates it by placing the rule-making in the hands of the profiteers…

…Sony’s only statement on the matter thus far, delivered to the BBC, is a thinly-veiled boast and something only a market-leader would feel it could get away with:

“With… more than 80 million monthly active users on PlayStation Network, we’ve built a huge community of gamers who can play together on ‘Fortnite’ and all online titles.”

“We also offer ‘Fortnite’ cross-play support with PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices, expanding the opportunity for Fortnite fans on PS4 to play with even more gamers on other platforms,” adding, “we have nothing further to add beyond this at this point.”


Sony might think it’s being clever; but non-PS4 players look down on Sony players as “no-skins” who can’t communicate when you’re playing squad mode. (Ask a child.) This isn’t helping Sony at all.
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Apple to unveil high-end AirPods, over-ear headphones for 2019 • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Debby Wu:


The Cupertino, California-based company is working on new AirPods with noise-cancellation and water resistance, the people said. Apple is trying to increase the range that AirPods can work away from an iPhone or iPad, one of the people said. You won’t be swimming in them though: the water resistance is mainly to protect against rain and perspiration, the people said.

Slated for 2019, the earbuds will likely cost more than the existing $159 pair, and that could push Apple to segment the product line like it does with iPhones, one of the people said. Apple is also working on a wireless charging case that’s compatible with the upcoming AirPower charger.

The company has also internally discussed adding biometric sensors to future AirPods, like a heart-rate monitor, to expand its health-related hardware offerings beyond the Apple Watch, another person said. The current AirPods will be refreshed later this year with a new chip and support for hands-free Siri activation, Bloomberg News reported.


Noise cancellation is good, water resistance useful. But we’ve known about the wireless case compatible with AirPower since Apple showed the promo video for AirPower in, er, September. Meanwhile…
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Apple admits its computers are broken • The Outline

Casey Johnston:


While the the repair and replacement program covers costs and notes that Apple will repair both single keys as well as whole keyboards when necessary, it doesn’t note whether the replacements will be a different, improved design that will prevent the problem from happening again (and again, and again). Having become a one-woman clearinghouse for people complaining about these keyboards since I broke this story, I feel justified in saying that keyboard failures – dead keys, sticking keys, double-spacing spacebars – appear to happen early and often, and repairs do not permanently fix the issue. I also feel justified in saying that the design on offer as recently as February still presented the exact same issues as the design I purchased in the fall of 2016.

In the same vein, it is worth noting that, prior to the announcement of the program, repairs involved almost exclusively swapping out the entire top case of the keyboard. This process required shipping the computer out to one of Apple’s remote service centers, and then shipping it back either to the customer or the Apple store, a total turnaround time of about five days if the computer was brought directly to an Apple store in the first place.

Apple did not immediately return a request from this reporter for comments on whether repairs may now be done on site at stores to shorten the time customers must be without their computers; whether the keyboard design has changed such that a repair may eliminate the problem rather than prop up a faulty design; or whether Apple anticipates releasing updated hardware that is not so prone to failure at any point in the future. Perhaps their keyboards, too, are broken.


In similar vein: The Register’s take on the same topic, by the owner of one of those keyboards. My present laptop dates from 2012. Its keyboard is fine by me – all the mistakes are mine.
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The Visual Chatbot • Letting neural networks be weird

Janelle Shane:


There is a delightful algorithm called Visual Chatbot that will answer questions about any image it sees. It’s a demo by a team of academic researchers that goes along with a recent machine learning research paper (and a challenge for anyone who’d like to improve on it), and its performance is pretty state-of-the-art, meant to demonstrate image recognition, language comprehension, and spatial awareness.

However, there are a couple of interesting things to note about this algorithm.

• It was trained on a large but very specific set of images.
• It is not prepared for images that aren’t like the images it saw in training.
• When confused, it tends not to admit it.

Now, Visual Chatbot was indeed trained on a huge variety of images. It can answer fairly involved questions about a lot of different things, and that’s impressive. The problem is that humans are very weird, and there are still many things it’s never seen. (This turns out to be a major challenge for self-driving cars.) And given Visual Chatbot’s tendency to react to confusion by digging itself a deeper hole, this can lead to some pretty surreal interactions.


So Ms Shane unleashes a few pictures on Visual Chatbot. Oh, you know – Darth Vader v Obi-wan Kenobi (“a person standing in a doorway of a train station”) – and takes it from there. Hugely entertaining. And you can play too!
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Consent, data-driven inequities, and the risks of sharing administrative data • Powered by Data

Lorraine Chuen:


[Welfare rights organizer, and author of the 2018 book “Automating Inequality” Virginia] Eubanks highlights how administrative data-sharing has already facilitated a new form of “automated inequality”. She points to the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) as a case study in how data-driven tools can further profile poor communities and communities of colour.  The AFST is a tool meant to help child welfare staff identify and prioritize the most “at risk” children in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The tool links data between twenty-nine different administrative data sources from the county’s Department of Human Services (DHS), including data on whether families have accessed or interacted with mental health services, child protective services, correction systems, drug/alcohol services, and more. This linked administrative data is fed into an algorithm used to flag which cases need intervention from General Protective Services—which often looks like separating a child from their family.

Unfortunately, many of the variables used to predict abuse in the model are simply measures for poverty (e.g. use of the SNAP nutrition assistance program), or reflections of systems that disproportionately affect poor & racialized communities (e.g. juvenile probation). The DHS also holds less data on affluent families—who are afforded more privacy simply by accessing mental health and drug treatment programs that are private, rather than public. Eubanks also points out the frustrating and heartbreaking paradox of parents being seen as greater risks to their children through the algorithm when they access public services to try and improve their situation.


Yes: the algorithms think that trying to help your children means you’re trying to harm your children.
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End of the line: our guide to the death of the telephone • The Guardian

Rhik Samadder:


I remember an hour-long argument with the phone company when I moved into my flat, on being informed that I had to have a landline if I wanted the internet. I felt like a bald man being sold pomade. The company advised me I could call friends and family cheaply if I signed up to special packages. I can call them for free using the internet, I replied. Besides, I’m not calling any friends or family, unless I need a kidney or a place to stay.

The landline’s primary use is on TV, as a signifier you’re watching a period drama, ie anything set in 1995. They were so inefficient they bordered on surreal. Upon picking up, you never knew who would be on the other end: the National Lottery or Beryl from down the road or his Holiness the Pope. Weirdly, you were expected to identify yourself, though they had called you. That’s because manual dialling led to a lot of miscalls. Large portions of the day were spent convincing strangers that you weren’t Darren, didn’t know Darren, and were sure he was sorry for what he’d done. Relics of a time when we remembered phone numbers, a disproportionate number of calls to landlines are probably from people needing bail. The only funny way to use a landline in recent years was to send a text message to one, and have a robotic voice read it aloud in a way that was guaranteed to unsettle your mother.

Landlines are solely for older relatives who haven’t got to grips with mobiles. Having said that, it’s possible they’ll make a comeback, in the same way the streaming age saw the resurgence of record players and vinyl. Imagine dialling a friend on a rotary phone, which takes about 20 minutes if you don’t make any mistakes. Imagine taking time out of your overstimulated, hectic day to do that. Quite nice, no? With that curly, twirlable wire tethering you to one spot, and their lack of screen, the practical limitations of the landline could see it become a mindfulness tool, encouraging us to sit and you know, really talk. Could – but almost certainly won’t. These days landlines are cordless, and come with Caller ID, and are really just mobile phones that never finished their degree.


A hilarious, but also true, piece which also looks at video calls, voicemail and more.
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The case against teaching kids to be polite to Alexa • Fast Company

Mike Elgan:


Today’s toddlers are the first generation to grow up without any memory of the world before ubiquitous artificial intelligence devices in homes. Parents are justifiably concerned about how these gadgets affect their children. One concern is manners. According to the UK research organization Childwise, children almost never say “please” or “thank you” to virtual assistant appliances (unlike adults, who often do).

Parents aren’t happy. But at least two companies are trying to help: Amazon and Google.

In April, Amazon introduced a politeness feature for its Alexa virtual assistant, along with a colorful line of Echo Dot devices just for kids. The manners feature, called Magic Word, is part of FreeTime, a wider range of child-specific features and content. It’s designed to encourage children to say “please” and “thank you” when speaking to Alexa assistant. After consulting outside child development experts, Amazon decided on positive reinforcement, with no “penalty” when a child is rude. For example, when a child says “please” in a request, Alexa might respond with “Thanks for asking so nicely.” Alexa replies to “Thank you” with “You’re welcome” or something similar. But if a child doesn’t say “please” or “thank you,” there’s no consequence.

An Amazon spokesperson told me that parents had requested help with reinforcing polite speech when their kids talk to Alexa. The company says it’s “still super early days” with the Magic Word feature, and expects to make future improvements based on customer feedback.


Count me among the group that doesn’t say please.
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Uber test car driver streamed Hulu before fatal crash • Consumer Reports

Jeff Plungis and Keith Barry:


The Tempe police report says distraction was a factor in the crash that killed the pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg.

During Vasquez’s ride in the Uber vehicle, which was recorded on video inside the vehicle as part of the testing, she looked down 204 times, mostly in the direction of the lower center console near her right knee, according to the police report. She was looking down for 5.2 of the final 5.7 seconds prior to the crash, the report says.

A log of Vasquez’s account provided by the video-streaming service Hulu, under a search warrant, showed that “The Voice” was streaming on her account in the final 43 minutes of the drive and that the streaming ended at 9:59 p.m., the approximate time of the collision, the police report says. 

The police concluded that the crash wouldn’t have occurred if Vasquez had been paying attention to the roadway, and indicated that she could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Details from the police report were published Thursday by the Arizona Republic, Reuters, and other media outlets.


In which case what’s the point of it being “self-driving”? It’s the limitations that make this pointless. You couldn’t trust it on motorways, side roads, at night. In which case there’s no point having it. Self-driving systems have to be really, really good, or else not employed at all, because driver inattention will be a thing, and accidents will keep happening.
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Intel and the danger of integration • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:


TSMC [founded in 1987! on the promise that it wouldn’t compete with its customers to design chips, only make them] got better, in large part because it had no choice: soon its manufacturing capabilities were only one step behind industry standards, and within a decade had caught-up (although Intel remained ahead of everyone). Meanwhile, the fact that TSMC existed created the conditions for an explosion in “fabless” chip companies that focused on nothing but design. For example, in the late 1990s there was an explosion in companies focused on dedicated graphics chips: nearly all of them were manufactured by TSMC. And, all along, the increased business let TSMC invest even more in its manufacturing capabilities.

This represented into a three-pronged assault on Intel’s dominance:

• Many of those new fabless design companies were creating products that were direct alternatives to Intel chips for general purpose computing. The vast majority of these were based on the ARM architecture, but also AMD in 2008 spun off its fab operations (christened GlobalFoundries) and became a fabless designer of x86 chips.
• Specialized chips, designed by fabless design companies, were increasingly used for operations that had previously been the domain of general purpose processors. Graphics chips in particular were well-suited to machine learning, cryptocurrency mining, and other highly “embarrassingly parallel” operations; many of those applications have spawned specialized chips of their own. There are dedicated bitcoin chips, for example, or Google’s Tensor Processing Units: all are manufactured by TSMC.
• Meanwhile TMSC, joined by competitors like GlobalFoundries and Samsung, were investing ever more in new manufacturing processes, fueled by the revenue from the previous two factors in a virtuous cycle.


When you consider the victory that modularisation has wrought in the right-hand part of that image, you have to marvel at how Apple has managed to navigate the rapids to get to where it is. Every company has to integrate to a degree; the question is how much, and when to stop/start. At Intel, it seems to have continued just that bit too long because the money was so good.
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Brexit’s big short: how pollsters helped hedge funds beat the crash • Bloomberg Business

Cam Simpson:


These hedge funds [which had bought early access to private polling data on Brexit] were in the perfect position to earn fortunes by short selling the British pound. Others learned the likely outcome of public, potentially market-moving polls before they were published, offering surefire trades.

Hedge fund managers, of course, try to beat the market by getting the best information they can. For exit polling data, that’s a tricky business. Pollsters have always sold surveys to private clients, but UK law restricts them from releasing exit-poll data before voting ends. While some of the practices discovered by Bloomberg fall into a gray area, the law is clear: It would have been a violation if, prior to the polls closing, “any section of the public” had gotten the same data the pollsters sold privately to hedge funds.

One person with questions still to answer is [Nigel] Farage, a former commodities broker who also went to work for a London currency trading company after he moved into politics. He twice told the world on election night that Leave had likely lost, when he had information suggesting his side had actually won. He also has changed his story about who told him what regarding that very valuable piece of information.

Bloomberg’s account is based in part on interviews over seven months with more than 30 knowledgeable current and former polling-company executives, consultants and traders, nearly all of whom spoke only on the condition they not be named because of confidentiality agreements. Pollsters said they believed Brexit yielded one of the most profitable single days in the history of their industry. Some hedge funds that hired them cleared in the hundreds of millions of dollars…


Farage suddenly has a lot of questions to answer – about this, and about Russian influence in the Brexit vote.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: is the smart home an abuser’s dream?, a simple malaria test, Micron v China, Proxima Centauri ahoy!, and more

Reports of a simple iPhone passcode hack turned out to be wrong. Photo by portal gda on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. It’s not my fault. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Thermostats, locks and lights: digital tools of domestic abuse • The New York Times

Nellie Bowles:


One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.

Their stories are part of a new pattern of behavior in domestic abuse cases tied to the rise of smart home technology. Internet-connected locks, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras that have been marketed as the newest conveniences are now also being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.

In more than 30 interviews with The New York Times, domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders described how the technology was becoming an alarming new tool. Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse…

…Muneerah Budhwani, who takes calls at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said she started hearing stories about smart homes in abuse situations last winter. “Callers have said the abusers were monitoring and controlling them remotely through the smart home appliances and the smart home system,” she said.

Graciela Rodriguez, who runs a 30-bed emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, Calif., said some people had recently come in with tales of “the crazy-making things” like thermostats suddenly kicking up to 100 degrees or smart speakers turning on blasting music.


Like something from a screenplay. No doubt this stuff will get incorporated into a screenplay very soon.
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Non-invasive malaria test wins Africa engineering prize • Associated Press

Rodney Muhumuza:


Malaria is the biggest killer in Africa, and the sub-Saharan region accounts for about 80% of the world’s malaria cases and deaths. Cases rose to 216 million in 2016, up from 211 million cases in 2015, according to the latest World Malaria Report, released late last year. Malaria deaths fell by 1,000, to 445,000.

The mosquito-borne disease is a challenge to prevent, with increasing resistance reported to both drugs and insecticides.

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger to detect changes in the shape, color and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. The results are sent within a minute to a computer or mobile phone linked to the device.

A Portugal-based firm has been contracted to produce the components for Matibabu, the Swahili word for “treatment.”

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development – in this case by improving health care,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation judge, said in a statement. “Matibabu is simply a game changer.”


Won by a 25-year-old Ugandan computer scientist, Brian Gitta. Initial accuracy 80%; they’re working for 90%. The mobile phone makes it so much cheaper and flexible, too.
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Inside a heist of American chip designs, as China bids for tech power • The New York Times

Paul Mozur:


Micron’s accusations focus on efforts by Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, a state-backed chip maker, to build a $5.7bn factory in China’s Fujian Province. Two years ago, Jinhua tapped UMC, a Taiwanese company, to help it develop technology for the factory. Instead of going through the lengthy steps required to design the technology, Micron said in its suit, UMC and Jinhua decided to steal it.

A UMC spokesman denied the allegations and declined to comment further. Jinhua did not respond to requests for comment.

First, UMC lured away engineers from Micron’s Taiwan operations with promises of raises and bonuses, according to the Taiwanese authorities. Then, it asked them to take some of Micron’s secrets with them, according to Micron’s court filings and the authorities. The engineers illegally took with them more than 900 files that contained key specifications and details about Micron’s advanced memory chips, the authorities said.

Micron grew suspicious, according to its court documents, after discovering that one of its departing engineers had turned to Google for instructions on how to wipe a company laptop. Later, at a recruiting event in the United States aimed at Micron employees, Jinhua and UMC showed PowerPoint slides that used Micron’s internal code names when discussing future chips it would make, according to the court documents.

Alerted by Micron, the Taiwanese police tapped the phone of one Micron engineer, Kenny Wang, who was being recruited by UMC. According to an indictment in Taiwan against Mr. Wang and others, UMC reached out to Mr. Wang in early 2016 using Line, the smartphone messaging app, while he was still working for Micron. UMC explained it was having problems developing its memory chip technology. Mr. Wang then grabbed the information it needed from Micron’s servers, and later used it to help UMC’s design. The police said Mr. Wang received a promotion at UMC.


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Google’s endless app overlap: what’s going on? • Android Authority

Anthony Hayt starts off displeased with Google Tasks, but finds he’s frustrated overall with Google’s lack of discipline:


Tasks may be great at one small thing for some folks, but it doesn’t really need to exist. It only complicates and fragments Google’s world that much more. In this regard, Tasks reminds me a lot of Google’s current crop of messaging apps, including Hangouts, Hangouts Chat, Messages, and Allo. All of these apps have different functions for different people — none provide a single, cohesive solution for everyone.

Tasks seems like yet another app Google has debuted essentially as a placeholder for some future development. Or, looked at another way, it is yet another beta product from Google’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to product development.

Tasks seems designed solely to test out the integration of  Gmail, Calendar, and a “Future Unnamed Keep-Tasks Hybrid” app (or something). No real thought seems to have gone into how productivity or enterprise users would actually want to effectively employ it. Indeed, for Google to really compete with apps like Asana or Trello, it will need to merge Hangouts Meet, Tasks, Keep, and Calendar in a way that integrates them all in one window. That is a lot to ask, but Tasks doesn’t really get us any closer to that goal.


This will sound weird, but I think Google’s big problem with apps is that it never had a desktop OS to keep it focussed. A mobile OS is a big undertaking, sure, but you can add apps to it endlessly. You can’t do that on a desktop OS: the opportunity cost is too high.

But what about ChromeOS? That’s more of a browser on top of Linux. Not the same thing.
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Apple pushes back on hacker’s iPhone passcode bypass report • ZDNet

Zack Whittaker:


We reported Friday on [Matthew] Hickey’s findings, which claimed to be able to send all combinations of a user’s possible passcode in one go, by enumerating each code from 0000 to 9999, and concatenating the results in one string with no spaces. He explained that because this doesn’t give the software any breaks, the keyboard input routine takes priority over the device’s data-erasing feature.

But Hickey tweeted later, saying that not all tested passcodes are sent to a the device’s secure enclave, which protects the device from brute-force attacks.

“The [passcodes] don’t always go to the [secure enclave processor] in some instances – due to pocket dialing [or] overly fast inputs – so although it ‘looks’ like pins are being tested they aren’t always sent and so they don’t count, the devices register less counts than visible,” he tweeted.

Hickey credited Stefan Esser for his help.

“I went back to double check all code and testing,” said Hickey in a message Saturday. “When I sent codes to the phone, it appears that 20 or more are entered but in reality its only ever sending four or five pins to be checked.”

Apple is rolling out a new feature, called USB Restricted Mode, in its upcoming iOS 12 update, which is said to make it far more difficult for police or hackers to get access to a person’s device – and their data.


This would have been an amazing hack, if true. But it’s not. ZDNet left the URL for this updated story untouched rather than write a new one and redirect from the old; the old URL is “a-hacker-figured-out-how-to-brute-force-an-iphone-passcode”.

I don’t think Whittaker rushed to (virtual) print on this; the fault was the researcher’s, who didn’t test it thoroughly before going public. A little embarrassing.
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Bitmain controls almost 51% of bitcoin mining hashrate • Bitcoin Newswire

The Bitmain group overtly controls 42% of mining power, and could marshal another 3% from power presently used mining other coins:


The BTC mining hash rate has tripled since December 2017, while the price of Bitcoin has dropped to approximately a third of its value within the same period.

With the drop in prices and the increasing hashrate, it is currently more difficult to mine Bitcoin than it was in December 2017. For smaller mining operations, the price drop is a significant problem that could render them unable to continue the business. If they close up shop and new miners don’t enter the market, there is the possibility of Bitmain grabbing control of a much larger share of the hashrate. Since Bitmain manufactures its hardware, it can most likely survive for much longer even in the face of increasing mining difficulty and reducing prices.

Bitcoin is currently down to its lowest level since the start of 2018. BTC prices fell below $6,000 for the first time in 2018 as the top-ranked crypto continues to struggle.


So bitcoin, the great decentralised project, is becoming centralised as hell – more so than fiat finance.
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This is how many people we’d have to send to Proxima Centauri to make sure someone actually arrives • MIT Technology Review


The Parker Solar Probe, to be launched this year, will travel at more than 700,000km/h, about 0.067% the speed of light.

So Marin and Beluffi use this as the speed achievable with state-of-the-art space technology today. “At this speed, an interstellar journey would still take about 6,300 years to reach Proxima Centauri b,” they say.

Selecting a crew for such a multigenerational space journey would be no easy feat. Important parameters include the initial number of men and women in the crew, their age and life expectancy, infertility rates, the maximum capacity of the ship, and so on. It also requires rules about the age at which procreation is permitted, how closely related parents can be, how many children they can have, and so on.

Once these parameters are determined, they can be plugged into an algorithm called Heritage, which simulates a multigenerational mission. First, the algorithm creates a crew with the selected qualities. It then runs through the mission, allowing for natural and accidental deaths each year and checking to see which crew members are within the allowed procreational window.

Next, it randomly associates two crew members of different sexes and evaluates whether they can have a child based on infertility rates, pregnancy chances, and inbreeding limitations. If the pregnancy is deemed viable, the algorithm creates a new crew member and then repeats this loop until the crew either dies out or reaches Proxima Centauri after 6,300 years.


This is the setup of so many sci-fi films, where of course it all goes wrong. The surprising (to me) conclusion is you’d only need 25 “breeding pairs” for it all to go swimmingly. Though you’d have a civilisation, in effect, which would arrive somewhere after 6,300 years spent just travelling.

As a reminder, 6,300 years ago we were just seeing the discovery of copper, and the plough in Europe. Would a space civilisation keep evolving?
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Young Trumpies hit D.C.…and D.C. hits them right back • POLITICO Magazine

Daniel Lippman on how young members of the Trump administration struggle to find their way in Washington:


One beleaguered 31-year-old female administration official described at length her “very, very frequent” scraps with her matches on dating apps. “You do the small talk thing, and you have a very good conversation, and then they might say, ‘You didn’t vote for Trump, right?’” she says. “As soon as I say, ‘Of course I did,’ it just devolves into all-caps ‘HOW COULD YOU BE SUCH A RACIST AND A BIGOT?’ And ‘You’re going to take away your own birth control.’” In one recent star-crossed exchange, the official told a match she worked for the federal government. When he pushed, she revealed she was in the administration. He asked her, “Do you rip babies from their mothers and then send them to Mexico?”

Evasive answers will get you only so far, though, since many dating apps provide enough information for inquisitive users to sleuth out their matches’ identities. “I literally got the other day, ‘Thanks but no thanks. Just Googled you and it said you were a mouthpiece for the Trump administration. Go fuck yourself,’” says the official. It’s all enough to drive her and some of her colleagues away from at least some of the apps. “I’m no longer on Bumble,” she says.

Young staffers have had to develop a keen sense of just when to have “The Talk” with romantic partners. “I’ve still been able to hook up with women,” says a male former White House staffer. “But I know that I need to be careful about broaching the Trump stuff.


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Nike hit back at Quest in court case • The ITAM Review

“Rich” on a row between Quest Software, which says Nike owes $15.6m for use of its software since 2001, and Nike, which says it owes $0.34m. It’s only a 98% difference:


Nike state they have: “…not agreed, under the SLSA or otherwise, to pay for licenses for Quest Software for persons or systems who could theoretically access the Quest Software, but who do not actually use the software”

And go on to point out that “People legitimately need to access these servers, but have no need to run Quest software – for example “NIKE’s cyber security and forensics professionals.” A situation that will be common to many organisations worldwide.

Looking at section 12 of the SLSA, the audit clause between Nike & Quest states: “In the event that an audit conducted as set forth herein discloses that Licensee has caused or permitted access to or use of the System by persons or entities that are not authorized under the terms of this Agreement to such use or access, Licensee shall pay Quest the underpayment, in the amount of the negotiated fee applicable to the particular Software Product or Product to which unauthorized access was permitted, for all such unauthorized users”

It seems Quest are relying on the language that states: “permitted access to…the System by person…not authorized…to such use or access” to make their claim that Nike are liable for all potential users based on system access.

Nike, however, are arguing that the clause simply states they must pay for: “All unauthorized users”


On that (and some more) turns $15m, one way or another.
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An invisible rating system at your favorite chain restaurant is costing your server • Buzzfeed

Caroline O’Donovan (where “server” means “waiter/waitress”):


Ziosk tablets sit atop dining tables at more than 4,500 restaurants across the United States — including most Chili’s and Olive Gardens, and many TGI Friday’s and Red Robins. Competitor E La Carte’s PrestoPrime tablets are in more than 1,800 restaurants, including most Applebee’s. Tens of thousands of servers are being evaluated based on a tech-driven, data-oriented customer feedback system many say is both inaccurate and unfair. And few of the customers holding the reins are even aware their responses have any impact on how much servers earn.

Ziosk and Presto sit at the nexus of two major consumer trends: the idea that every product, service, piece of content, and interaction, whether encountered online or in real life, should be rated on a scale of one to five, and that these ratings in aggregate become an invaluable dataset, helping managers achieve growth and make money.

“It makes very literal the idea that the customer is always right, to the complete disregard of the worker,” Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, told BuzzFeed News.

Technologies like Ziosk are attractive to the restaurant industry, which faces a rising minimum wage, because the tablets promise to make workers more efficient, and in turn, lower labor costs. But in interviews with BuzzFeed News, more than two dozen current and former servers described Ziosk as a source of financial and emotional anxiety, a vector of discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and an added layer to the economic and psychological precariousness that already defines restaurant work.

“When they introduced them, it seemed like a good deal for the customer. But as a server, it’s just the worst thing ever,” said Sam Ellis, who worked as a server at a Chili’s in Texas. “That’s all your job depends on, is those survey scores.”


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CryptoKitties sales plummet in popularity months after raising $12m • Business Insider

Zoë Bernard:


Like Beanie Babies, CryptoKitties are considered collectibles. Their novelty lies in the fact that owners can prove that they possess sole ownership of the Crypto Kitty they’ve purchased. In December, it was reported that one particular Crypto Kitty sold for around $155,000.

People had already spent millions buying and trading CryptoKitties by the time top-tier investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures decided to give the company $12 million. Before the deal went through, one investor in the company told Business Insider that the product embodied one of the most important and applicable use-cases of the blockchain: The ability to safely store digital collectibles online.

But it looks like CryptoKitties itself could be in danger of becoming a short-lived novelty.

According to data from blockchain analytics sites Bloxy and Diar, the number of CryptoKitties transactions has fallen drastically in the last 3 months.

The number of CryptoKitties transactions decreased in June by 98.4% compared to its peak of 80,500 transactions back in December 2017, according to data from Bloxy. The game is still among the most popular options for ethereum-related gaming, but public interest in buying and selling them seems to have waned significantly in recent months.

CryptoKitties cofounder Bryce Bladon told Business Insider in an email that the decrease in CryptoKitties transactions was to be expected, and there were a few factors, one of which was the skyrocketing costs of processing a transaction based on ethereum. 


Ah yes, transaction costs. That almost-always-overlooked factor in blockchain “currency” things.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: your call is important to our AI, US Supremes approve internet tax, where’s Apple’s AirPower?, and more

A member of Congress is suggesting DNA matching could reunite children and parents separated at the US border. Photo by Shaury Nash on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 8 links for you. I really like these. Do you? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How computers could make your customer-service calls more human • WSJ

Daniela Hernandez and Jennifer Strong:


Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going. Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking, according to Dr. Place. “We measure the conversational dance,” he says.

That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired.

When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy. The alerts are useful not just for the agents, but also for their supervisors, Cogito says.

When insurer MetLife Inc. started testing the software about nine months ago, Emily Baker, a 39-year-old supervisor at a call center in Warwick, R.I., thought: “Why do I need this artificial intelligence to allow me to be more human? How much more human can I be?”

But the program has come in handy when coaching new agents, she says, especially those with little experience. One of her 14 agents said the software noticed he wasn’t speaking with enough energy, so it prompted him with a message to pep up plus a coffee-cup icon, she says.

Tiredness can come off as lack of confidence, Ms. Baker says, and it’s important for clients to “feel confident about the service we’re providing” because callers are often going through potentially life-changing events. The call center where Ms. Baker works is focused on disability insurance.


Machines to watch over us, and correct us when we aren’t good enough with each other.
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A Congresswoman is asking 23andMe to help reunite kids and parents at the border • Buzzfeed

Lissandra Villa:


California Rep. Jackie Speier is asking 23andMe, a popular DNA-testing company, to help reunite children separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Speier, a Democrat, said she spoke with executives at 23andMe on Thursday to see if the company could play a role in bringing families back together. The congresswoman’s suggestion comes in the midst of a scramble to figure out what the next steps are for some of these families, given that there’s a lack of a plan on how to bring them back together.

“I was just trying to think, how are we going to connect these two? How can we guarantee that the parents are going to get their own child back?” Speier told BuzzFeed News. “I’m thinking, how else are we going to do that? So I was encouraging them to look at whether or not they could provide some kind of assistance here.”

Asked what she was told by the company, Speier said: “They were going to think about it.”


That’s inspired thinking. Could even work, and wouldn’t be that difficult. Objections have been raised that this creates a DNA database of would-be illegal immigrants and/or legitimate asylum seekers. Given that the US requires my fingerprints for perfectly legitimate visits, I’m not sure why that’s a big worry compared to the large good that could be achieved.
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Atari accuses El Reg of professional trolling and making stuff up. Welp, here’s the interview tape for you to decide… • The Register

Kieren McCarthy interviewed an Atari exec earlier this year, and wrote about it. Atari was unhappy:


a potential buyer of a Atari VCS posted a link to the article on the company’s Facebook page, and asked the biz to explain it. Atari responded:


We honestly can’t explain that article either. Our executives sat with that reporter for half an hour and he wrote what he wanted instead of what was discussed with him. Sadly there are even irresponsible trolls in ‘professional’ positions i guess.


We clearly said that we were bringing engineering design models to GDC and lots of people clearly don’t understand what that means. Hunks of plastic? Well, yeah, that’s how you finalize the designs and confirm that you can get the look and feel you want for the finished products. Sad.

While we at The Register often take a light-hearted and critical perspective on the news of the day, we take our professional obligations as reporters very seriously.

In that capacity, we would like to formally apologize to both Atari and Michael Arzt for digging out a recording of the interview – and for the following article in which we highlight that Atari is so full of crap that it should be designated a hazardous waste zone.

You can find the entire 30-minute interview at the bottom, but here are a few short clips covering the most salient parts.


Going to need a salve for that burn, Atari. I’ve been an editor of Kieren’s work, and he is really thorough and painstaking and accurate.
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60,000 Android devices hit by battery-saving app attack • Tripwire

Graham Cluley on a scam that “warns” you that your (Android) device – which it names, by some HTML-grabbing functionality – has a problem and recommends the app (and the only way to stop it is to kill the web page):


So what happens if you do go to the Google Play store and install the battery-saving app being touted by the fake warning?

The first thing that should ring alarm bells in you is that the app demands access to a disturbing array of permissions including:

• Read sensitive log data
• Receive text messages (SMS)
• Receive data from Internet
• Pair with Bluetooth devices
• Full network access
• Modify system settings
I can’t think of any legitimate reason why a genuine battery-saving app would ever need such invasive abilities, which in combination with the app’s other functionality allows it to steal a user’s phone number, location, and details about their device including its IMEI number.

And so it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Advanced Battery Saver app actually does live up to its advertising – monitoring a device’s battery status, killing unwanted background processes that consume significant resources, and making other attempts to keep batteries running for longer.

And it’s this strange dichotomy – the good and the bad behavior – which leads the researchers to speculate that the battery-saving app was perhaps originally designed to perform its intended advertised function (and to fulfill only that purpose) before being extended by its creators into underhand methods of income generation.


There’s no money in standard apps at that level now, if there ever was.

Chief among those is the app’s request for access to a user’s SMS text messages. One installed, the battery-saving app recruits devices into an ad-clicking scam, with the app “clicking” on advertising links it is sent via SMS to earn more income for the fraudsters behind the scheme.
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Former CIA employee charged with leaking hacking tools to WikiLeaks • Buzzfeed

Kevin Collier:


Joshua Schulte, 29, believed to be behind the WIkiLeaks “Vault 7” disclosures of 2017, in which the site spent months slowly leaking CIA hacking tools, had previously been charged with possession of child pornography.

WikiLeaks published the Vault 7 disclosures in 25 increments from March through November 2017. The disclosures themselves didn’t reveal shocking spy powers, but they were a major embarrassment for the agency. In one release, WikiLeaks claimed that the CIA had developed a means to “bypass” the encrypted chat app Signal. The agency hadn’t actually compromised Signal itself but had noted in internal documents that hacking such an app wasn’t necessary if the agency could hack a phone itself — a technique commonly deployed among the world’s elite hackers.

If convicted of all charges, Schulte could face a maximum of 135 years in prison.

Among the charges are 10 counts of willfully distributing copyrighted materials — the same charge generally leveled against someone who posts movies, TV shows, or music files.

WikiLeaks, which has a formal policy of not naming its sources, responded to the news by retweeting last year’s biggest Vault 7 leaks.

Schulte online claimed to be a libertarian, took a photo of himself with a glass with the text “fuck Obama” on it, and repeatedly used racist slurs in chats.

He was a member of the CIA’s Engineering Development Group, which built hacking tools deployed overseas. A former CIA coworker of Schulte’s, who requested be unnamed because he wasn’t authorized to speak about agency matters, told BuzzFeed News that Schulte had had problems getting along with his coworkers.


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Supreme Court clears way for sales taxes on internet merchants • The New York Times

Adam Liptak:


Internet retailers can be required to collect sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Brick-and-mortar businesses have long complained that they are disadvantaged by having to charge sales taxes while many of their online competitors do not. States have said that they are missing out on tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped spur the rise of internet shopping.

On Thursday, the court overruled that ruling, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, which had said that the Constitution bars states from requiring businesses to collect sales taxes unless they have a substantial connection to the state.

Shares in Amazon were down just 1% in morning trading after the ruling, at $1,731.59. But other e-commerce companies suffered far tougher blows: Shares in Etsy, the marketplace for artisanal crafts, fell 4.5%, to $42.21, while those in Wayfair, a popular home goods seller, were down 3.2%, at $112.42.

Writing for the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the Quill decision had distorted the nation’s economy and had caused states to lose annual tax revenues between $8bn and $33bn.

“Quill puts both local businesses and many interstate businesses with physical presence at a competitive disadvantage relative to remote sellers,” he wrote. “Remote sellers can avoid the regulatory burdens of tax collection and can offer de facto lower prices caused by the widespread failure of consumers to pay the tax on their own.”


This has long looked anomalous: if you buy things on the internet, why not pay sales tax? European countries levy VAT on online sales, including software, wherever the “purchase” is made. The tax benefit for some states could be substantial – though South Dakota has an annual budget of about $4bn, and reckons this will bring in $50m. A side point: South Dakota doesn’t have income tax; instead it applies sales and “use” taxes. A touch regressive there, people.
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Are ‘sensory videos’ vulgar and pornographic? China says so • CNET

Bonnie Burton:


The autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, can happen after hearing certain sounds. Entire YouTube channels are dedicated to ASMR videos of whispering, fingers tapping on surfaces or even the crushing of eggshells.

While ASMR videos are so popular they regularly trend on YouTube, China’s anti-pornography office released a statement this month saying that it would crack down on inappropriate ASMR videos appearing on the country’s popular streaming sites such as Youku and Bilibili. 

The China office says many ASMR videos stimulate sexual sensations, but ASMR fans say they use them more as sleeping aids.

In a 2015 study, UK researchers looked at ASMR media people were accessing in the US and Western Europe. Eighty-two% of study participants said they used ASMR videos as a sleep aid and 70% used them to de-stress. 

Only 5% of people who enjoy ASMR media use it for sexual stimulation, according to the study. 


If I say this has passed me by, I sound old, right?
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Why Apple’s AirPower wireless charger is taking so long to make • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


Unlike wireless chargers on the market today, the AirPower is designed to charge three devices simultaneously: an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods with a still-to-be-released wireless charging case.

Apple also wants users to be able to place any of their devices anywhere on the charging mat to begin a charge. That ambitious goal requires the company to pack the AirPower with multiple charging sensors, a process that has proven difficult, the people said. The charger is based on custom charging technology, which it intends to integrate with the Qi charging standard, the company said last year.

An executive at an Apple partner that manufactures third-party wireless chargers for iPhones, who asked not to be identified, said that the multi-device charging mechanism is challenging to build because it likely requires different sized charging components for the three types of devices, which would all overlap across the mat.

The AirPower charger is also more advanced than the current competition because it includes a custom Apple chip running a stripped down version of the iOS mobile operating system to conduct on-device power management and pairing with devices. Apple engineers have also been working to squash bugs related to the on-board firmware, according to the people familiar.


A stripped-down version of iOS? So now Apple is going to have five OSs to update – MacOS, iOS, WatchOS, tvOS and AirPowerOS (maybe AirOS).

And when is it coming? From Gurman’s piece: “engineers hoped to launch the charger by June. The aim now is to put it on sale before or in September, according to one of the people.” At least that gives us a sort-of deadline. Though “before or in” is basically “by”. The subediting on American journalism is dire.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “who” was used instead of “whom” in a sentence in yesterday’s post. Doctors are optimistic that the person affected will make a full recovery.

Start Up: the border row fallout, Fortnite’s first $100m, tau neutrino mystery, a blockchain for video?, and more

What if you came to work and found the computer had fired you? It happened. Photo by Joe Loong on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Midsummer’s day! (in the north). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tesla lawsuit highlights risks of inside threat • CNBC

Kate Fazzini:


The incidents described in CEO Elon Musk’s email to employees and the company’s lawsuit against the former employee are jarring because they show how much access insiders have to critical systems of these vehicles, and how difficult it might be to determine whether they are altering code on machines that test the cars.

Cybersecurity professionals have demonstrated how to hack into the infotainment systems of several vehicle brands over the years. These demonstrations have shown that, while it’s fairly easy to break into the computer systems that control dashboard computers, getting deeper into the systems that actually run a vehicle – and control its steering, acceleration and braking — is much harder. It is often difficult to get to these computers physically, and they typically aren’t connected to the internet or remotely available, making it necessary for an attacker to have physical access to the device.

It’s even less likely outside attackers could get access to computers used in vehicle testing.

But insiders have far greater access. Employees may not only have physical access to the critical systems that run manufacturing or program car components, but they may know important information that allows them to write code that can cause meaningful damage to the vehicle.


link to this extract

How everyone started talking about family separations • The Atlantic

Alexis Madrigal with a clever timeline of how an overlooked story became The Story Everyone Was Talking About:


despite the reporting that children were being separated from their parents and kept in detention centers, no one had seen any photographs of what was happening. The world was desperate for some images to make sense of the story: What did this look really look like? NowThis Politics rolled out the old Kamala Harris footage and it took off.

In fact, the controversy became even more prominent because of that desire for visual evidence. A variety of well-known liberals including Congressman Joaquin Castro, the actress Mia Farrow, the former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted photographs of a now-defunct detection center from 2014.

Then something really important happened. President Trump stepped in to fire back at the Democrats. “Democrats mistakenly tweet 2014 pictures from Obama’s term showing children from the Border in steel cages,” Trump tweeted. “They thought it was recent pictures in order to make us look bad, but backfires. Dems must agree to Wall and new Border Protection for good of country … Bipartisan Bill!” It got nearly 30,000 retweets and 100,000 likes, planting the topic at the very top of the week’s news cycle.

Strangely, but also very 2010-ishly, it was the bad information—these old photographs tweeted as new—that touched the crisis to the Trump third rail. News organizations began to throw everything they had at the story.

The reporting about what was happening at the border, which had been sparse, flowed in.


Note how it’s all about reporting and social media. Trump has sort-of relented and signed an Executive Order that sort-of rescinds part of the policy, but only in order to create a new legal fight. So this isn’t done yet. What it really shows is the power of Trump to put himself into a corner through a foolish tweet.
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Tech CEOs criticize separating families at the US border • Mashable

Rachel Kraus:


The tech industry isn’t staying silent. In addition to Apple’s Tim Cook, CEOs Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Dara Khosrowshahi (Uber), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), and others have taken to social media to speak out. Many have also pledged donations, with Zuckerberg leading a fundraising effort that has so far raised over $25,000.

In a Tuesday memo to Uber employees, Uber execs said the company’s legal team is looking into connecting families with lawyers and already donated $100,000 to a nonprofit helping separated children, according to Business Insider.

Other tech industry leaders that have called for change include representatives from Airbnb, Box, eBay, Cisco, and others. 

Microsoft also issued a statement saying that it is “dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border.” That comes after reports of employee anger over Microsoft’s cloud computing deal with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Microsoft managed to overcome its dismay long enough to reassure the public that “Microsoft is not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border.”

Tesla’s Elon Musk also expressed his support with a puzzling series of tweets.


In the morning when I linked to this, I wrote: “I’m surprised this policy survived the weekend, but increasingly it feels as though it cannot survive the indignation – and funding – being aimed at it. The stain on the US administration’s character is spreading.” By the evening in the UK, it had been sort-of revoked – at least the separation part.
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Twitter is locking accounts for tweeting Stephen Miller’s phone number • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel:


Another day, another test of the limits of Twitter’s harassment rules.

This time, Twitter’s challenge came from Gizmodo Media Group and its news and politics site Splinter, which, on Wednesday afternoon, tweeted out what it reported is White House adviser Stephen Miller’s phone number alongside a piece titled, “Here’s Stephen Miller’s Cell Phone Number, If You Need It.” Miller is the reported architect of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, which has resulted in the forceful separation of children from their families at the border.

Countless others followed Splinter’s lead, starting with Gizmodo Media Group reporters and editors followed by other users who posted screenshots of their texts to Miller. As of this writing, a Twitter search of Miller’s number yielded hundreds of tweets containing the number, as well as users who’ve changed their Twitter display name to his number.

Twitter rules forbid users to publish any private information for public and private figures alike, which includes phone numbers. Typically, this is something you might see from individuals or groups of users as a form of targeted harassment. It’s less common, however, for such information to be published by a major media outlet.

A spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News that publishing Miller’s number was a violation of the company’s rules. “We are aware of this and are taking appropriate action on content that violates our Terms of Service,” the spokesperson said.


Wellll.. as someone who has had their phone number tweeted (thanks Jake), I can say that Twitter acted pretty fast then to remove it. And putting Miller’s number online isn’t journalism – it doesn’t belong on a mainstream news site. Sure, Miller is a jerk. But this is harassment, not journalism. So I’m with Twitter on this one, for both reasons.
link to this extract

These parents hoped to raise $1,500 for separated migrant families. They’ve brought in $9m • Washington Post

Darlena Cunha:


Bonds for detained migrants typically range from hundreds to many thousands of dollars — amounts that might as well be in the billions for families that arrive here with next to nothing, and have whatever they brought with them confiscated by Border Patrol.

So the Willners created a Facebook fundraiser over the weekend to raise $1,500 — enough to free a single migrant parent with a relatively low bond.

“It was the closest thing we could do to hugging that [2-year-old] kid,” Dave Willner told the Mercury News.

Five days later, the Willners have raised more than $8m and climbing — overflowing all previous optimism.

“We can confirm this is one of the largest fundraisers we’ve ever seen on Facebook,” Roya Winner, a spokeswoman for the social media giant, told The Washington Post, back when the amount was less than $4m.

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is among the nearly 200,000 people who had contributed by Wednesday morning.

Private donors have matched more than $250,000 of the total, but the Willners said the average donation is just $40.

The money has come from Americans disaffected with their government, immigrants who remember their own journeys, and sympathizers from Canada to Switzerland and beyond.

“That clear moral commonality is what will sustain us,” Charlotte Willner wrote on Facebook on the first night of the campaign. “It transcends almost everything. It is an enduring sense of what America ought to be about.”


This is one of those occasions when any gloom about the effects of the internet is lifted, like the sun breaking through clouds. Hundreds of thousands of people contributing to make a difference, rather than tweeting about it. And even after the Executive Order about this, the benefits of the gift continue – it funds lawyers and help for people for at least a year.
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The blockchain solution to our DeepFake problems • Wired

Antonio García Martínez on the problem (and solution?) for all those “DeepFake” videos:


What then would be the ideal architecture of a video “truth” infrastructure, one that could send someone to prison for years, or exonerate someone from the same fate? Well, it would be decentralized (no single arbiter of truth) and public (we can all check it), which is precisely what Bitcoin’s blockchain provides for payments.

Can the greedy bubble of Bitcoin be repurposed toward a less monetary goal?

A three-year-old Austin, Texas-based company named Factom thinks so. Building on top of the existing Bitcoin infrastructure almost as if it were the network layer of a new truth web, Factom provides a streamlined way to assert the existence of a piece of data or document at a certain time. Since the blockchain isn’t designed to store reams of streaming data (e.g. a 24/7 security camera), Factom’s hashes and organizes incoming data to establish proof that some specific information exists. In practice, this would mean that, say, 10-minute blocks of video from a given camera would live inside the Factom data structure, and “truth” could be assured for that window of time, with one such assertion for a long chain of such windows stretching for however long the camera’s been recording. Factom assures what’s known as “data integrity” in both senses of the word integrity: whole and trustingly honorable. By combining that with a hardware solution that digitally signs and hashes the data instantly, right as the pixels are pulled off the camera, one can confidently claim that a video is “real” and was really taken by the camera that digitally signed the data.

The Department of Homeland Security, which maintains an array of cameras and sensors along our country’s southern border, is now testing Factom’s newfangled truth recorder. The fear is that those border cameras will be hacked by sophisticated smugglers (of the drug or human variety) who buy their own cameras, wire them to show whatever false scene, and then plug them back into the DHS network. The smugglers carry on while the border’s overseers stare at a contrived scene of false tranquility. Border videos can also be used as evidence in immigration trials—another legal showcase where the juridical definition of truth is key.


I think he – and they – may have hit on the first sensible use for blockchain that we need. Though you can bet this won’t stop people denying things they see is real. (Could you fake the blockchain?)
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Fortnite earns $100m in its first 90 days on mobile • Sensor Tower

Randy Nelson:


Having brought in more than $25m during its first month on mobile, Fortnite increased its revenue generating momentum to surpass $50m by its 45 day mark. Now, three months since its March 15 launch, Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data reveals that the game—which debuted on Nintendo’s Switch console last week—has reached $100m in worldwide player spending on Apple’s mobile platform.

In reaching this milestone, Epic Games has managed to surpass some of most successful multiplayer mobile titles of the past two years, despite the fact that Fortnite initially launched in invite-only form for two of the 12 weeks it has been available. As the chart below shows, it earned more than 3x as much as Tencent’s massively successful Honor of Kings—known as Arena of Valor in Western markets—did in China during its first 90 days on iOS, despite not being available there itself. (It will be launching in China at an undetermined future date courtesy of none other than Tencent.)

The mobile version of Fortnite has also earned about 4.3x more than its closest revenue rival among the new breed of battle royale titles on mobile, Knives Out from NetEase. What’s more, it managed to earn approximately 65% as much as Supercell’s Clash Royale did in its first 90 days, a title that had the most successful launch in mobile gaming history next to Niantic’s Pokémon GO in terms of revenue.


link to this extract

The machine fired me • Idiallo

Ibrahim Diallo found himself fired – but nobody could explain why or by who:


Once the order for employee termination is put in, the system takes over. All the necessary orders are sent automatically and each order completion triggers another order. For example, when the order for disabling my key card is sent, there is no way of it to be re-enabled. Once it is disabled, an email is sent to security about recently dismissed employees. Scanning the key card is a red flag. The order to disable my Windows account is also sent. There is also one for my JIRA account. And on and on. There is no way to stop the multi-day long process. I had to be rehired as a new employee. Meaning I had to fill up paperwork, set up direct deposit, wait for Fedex to ship a new key card.

But at the end of the day the question is still, why was I terminated in the first place?

I was on a three-year contract and had only worked for eight months. Just before I was hired, this company was acquired by a much larger company and I joined during the transition. My manager at the time was from the previous administration. One morning I came to work to see that his desk had been wiped clean, as if he was disappeared. As a full time employee, he had been laid off. He was to work from home as a contractor for the duration of a transition. I imagine due to the shock and frustration, he decided not to do much work after that. Some of that work included renewing my contract in the new system.

I was very comfortable at the job. I had learned the in-and-out of all the systems I worked on. I had made friends at work. I had created a routine around the job. I became the go-to guy. I was comfortable.

When my contract expired, the machine took over and fired me.

A simple automation mistake(feature) caused everything to collapse. I was escorted out of the building like a thief, I had to explain to people why I am not at work, my coworkers became distant (except my manager who was exceptionally supportive). Despite the great opportunity it was for me to work at such a big company, I decided to take the next opportunity that presented itself.

What I called job security was only an illusion. I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if I had actually made a mistake in this company. Automation can be an asset to a company, but there needs to be a way for humans to take over if the machine makes a mistake. I missed three weeks of pay because no one could stop the machine.


link to this extract

Unilever takes stand against digital media’s fake followers • Reuters

Martinne Geller:


The practice of buying followers risks eroding trust and therefore damaging one of the fastest-growing areas of advertising – the billion-dollar-a-year market now known as “influencer marketing” – and Unilever says it wants it to stop.

Its chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, will pledge on Monday that the maker of Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise will never buy followers or work with influencers who buy followers. It will also prioritize social media platforms that take action to stamp out fraud and increase transparency.

“Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback, and we could very quickly see the whole influencer space be undermined,” Weed told Reuters. “There are lots of great influencers out there, but there are a few bad apples spoiling the barrel and the trouble is, everyone goes down once the trust is undermined.”

The announcement comes four months after Weed made waves by threatening to pull investment from digital platforms such as Facebook and Google if they did not take steps to improve consumer trust and eradicate “toxic” online content.

It also comes as Unilever and rival Procter & Gamble audit their advertising spending and agency relationships in efforts to operate more efficiently as sales growth of consumer packaged goods slows. They are working with fewer agencies, creating fewer ads and bringing some marketing work in-house.


The amounts that brands are willing to pay is amazing: £75,000 for a celebrity’s Facebook post; as much as £1,500 for a “micro-influencer” with fewer than 10,000 followers. One hopes those are the right followers. It’s probably cheaper than making an ad which will be ignored by all sorts; instead you make an ad that’s ignored by bots. (I’ve been offered money to do “influencer” posts and turned them down before getting to the question of money. Trust indeed leaves on horseback, if not faster.)
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Mysterious IceCube event may be caused by a tau neutrino • Eureakalert

Ranjan Laha is a postdoc at the Mainz-based team working at the PRISMA Cluster of Excellence:


It was just eight years ago that the IceCube detector, a research center located at the South Pole to detect neutrinos emanating from the cosmos, was commissioned. Three years later, it began to register the first momentous results. The detection of high-energy neutrinos by IceCube made viable completely new options for explaining how our universe works. “These neutrinos with their considerable energy are cosmic messengers we have never encountered before and it is extremely important that we understand exactly what they are telling us,” explained Dr. Ranjan Laha of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Working in collaboration with a colleague at Stanford University in the USA, the Mainz-based physicist has put forward a new hypothesis on what this interstellar message carrier might be. The two physicists have calculated that what has been detected could be the track of a high-energy tau particle that transited the IceCube detector.


A tau neutrino – if that’s what it has found – would have far higher energy than any neutrino previously observed, and means something important about the universe, though it doesn’t quite enable dilithium crystals and photon torpedoes just yet. Noted in passing, rather like a neutrino in the night. (Also, “Cluster of Excellence” would be a good name for a band.)
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In China trade war, Apple worries it will be collateral damage • The New York Times

Jack Nicas and Paul Mozur:


[Tim] Cook still sees an opening to engage on the trade issue because of disagreement inside the White House, and he doubts that a trade war — or Chinese retaliation against Apple — ultimately will happen, this person said.

“He’s willing to put a brave face on and work with the Trump administration because they probably have more at stake than any other tech company when it comes to China and the tariffs,” said Gene Munster, a longtime Apple analyst and partner at the investment firm Loup Ventures.

The specter of Chinese retaliation against Apple has increased since the administration targeted the Chinese tech company ZTE for breaking American sanctions against Iran and North Korea…

…The company has reason to fear retaliation. In 2014, the Obama administration indicted five Chinese military hackers, stoking tensions already high from leaks about American surveillance from the former government contractor Edward J. Snowden.

Months later, Chinese regulators delayed approvals of the iPhone 6 for additional security reviews. Apple executives perceived the moves as retaliation, said people familiar with the matter, which has not been previously reported.

Apple’s primary leverage with the Chinese government is Chinese consumers’ love for Apple products, said Dean Garfield, head of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group that represents Apple and other tech companies.

However, Mr. Garfield added, Chinese consumers would also love Facebook and Google, two products blocked in China. “There are limits,” he said. “Xi and the national party will do what’s in their interest.”


This appeared on Monday; the next day, Trump said he would put tariffs on more Chinese products, and China said it would retaliate. Apple is such an obvious target for China that it would almost be surprising if the government there didn’t create problems for the iPhone as a means of creating problems for Trump.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

#cyberwars: Harry Potter and the army of hackers (or why hackers are wizards, of a sort)

Cyber Wars book cover This is the second of a series of posts about my book Cyber Wars, published May 2018 in the UK and in the US, which investigates hacking incidents such as the Sony Pictures hack, the TalkTalk hack, ransomware, the Mirai IoT botnet. It looks at how the people in those organisations responded to the hacks – and takes a look at what future hacks might look like. (The first was on phishing.)

Hermione alohomora

When I’m giving presentations about Cyber Wars, I often include this picture in a slide. It shows the character Hermione Granger in one of the Harry Potter films opening a door by saying the spell “Alohomora”. Hacking, I explain, is the search for the spell that will open the door. Not a physical door, generally, but the “door” into the target computer so that you can make it do what you want.

I think that the resemblances go deeper, though. The wizards in the Harry Potter novels are all hackers, in one way or another: they’re using their skills to make something that doesn’t ordinarily happen (levitating feathers, say) occur.

Like hackers, they range in ability, from the most basic “script kiddies” following instructions handed down by their seniors – basically, the classrooms where the first-years learn to incant “wingardium leviosa!” – to the people working at the limits of what’s known, good or bad: think Voldemort and his groundbreaking approach to not dying, or Dumbledore and his research (pre-Hogwarts, I think?) into various types of magic.

Mother and father of invention (and wizards)

This might seem like an overcooked metaphor to you, but there’s an important question in the Harry Potter universe which isn’t directly answered in the books.

It’s this: where do spells come from? And the related question: can you invent new ones? This relates to hackers, because if wizards can invent new spells, then they’re exactly like hackers, who are always searching for new ways to break into stuff – think Heartbleed, Meltdown, Spectre, Shellshock – even as they rely on older tried and trusted methods, such as SQLi and buffer overflows, the “Alohomora” and “Accio!” of the hacking world.

JK Rowling never deals with the question of where spells come from in the books. But this doesn’t mean that she hasn’t left clues or that we can’t tease out the truth about it. Rowling famously plotted everything in great detail, but just as she doesn’t deal with where spells come from, she doesn’t deal with what makes a wizard, well, wizardy.

When it comes to wizardry, it’s evident from the way the capability passes through families, and sometimes drops out of families (as in the case of the Hogwarts caretaker Filch, a non-wizard born to wizarding parents who describes himself as a “squib”), or pops up in non-wizarding families (as with Hermione, born to non-wizarding parents) that it is genetic. Inevitably, there’s been a paper written about this, suggesting it’s autosomal dominant; squibs are from double recessives, and wizards born to Muggles from spontaneous mutations. (Autosomal dominant characteristics are usually described for their bad characteristics – Huntington’s disease, for example. Wizards might differ.)

Cast a spell

So let’s move on to spells. We know that there are lots and lots of spells; the children are taught them, at tedious length. It’s clear too that some adults have access to levels of skill in applying spells that the children can’t perceive; think of the fight (best shown in the film) between Voldemort and Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic, which for my money is the best sequence of all the films.

But crucially, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we learn that spells can be improved upon. Harry comes across an old textbook for his Potions class which has handwritten notes about how to make various potions; they improve on what’s in the book, demonstrating that you can do better than what past wizards do. Harry then discovers a spell in it that he’s never seen before: a fighting curse, “sectumsempra” (which, if it were Latin, would mean “always cut”), which he later employs to almost lethal effect. When he subsequently tries to use it on a fleeing adult, his attempt is deflected – and the adult sneers at him: “you dare use my own spells against me?”

There’s your proof: in the Harry Potter universe, wizards can indeed invent their own spells. The potential is literally unlimited, bounded only by what they can imagine and find to do. That is, spells are not the same as, say, laws of physics or chemical elements. Spells are human – well, wizard – creations rather than natural phenomena.

In this way, Harry Potter wizarding is exactly like hacking. There, people try to find new ways to get computers to do stuff that nobody had expected. You mean that when you demand more data from the input buffer of a TLS server, it gets read and sent back? Sure – that’s Heartbleed, which seems to have been discovered at least three and possibly four times, if you include the two final times that led to its public disclosure. (One of those pre-discoverers is thought to be the US National Security Agency.) Who would have thought to ask that? Who would have thought to try “sectumsempra” as a fighting curse? (In the book, it says that different versions of the word have been written and crossed out before the final one is left. Which leaves you wondering how the previous versions were tested.) Trial and error plays a huge part in hacking too: trying combinations, trying different things, guessing, intuiting. And if you’re lucky or talented or both, you’ll get results.

(image from Wikipedia)

Butterbeer and layer cake

We can also see that the Potter world is striated rather like the hacking world. At the base level, you have the script kiddies (OK, spell kiddies): carrying out commands without really knowing quite how they work, but pleased with the effect.

Then there are the professionals: people who are using these techniques to get things done, and will occasionally invent their own methods to get around limitations that block them. For the most part, though, it’s the careful refinement of existing processes – think of all those people in the Ministry of Magic doing magic gruntwork. Think too of the commercial hackers rewriting a piece of ransomware to take account of the new defences put up against them.

At a higher level still you have those who are using more sophisticated versions of these skills for personal and political ends. Of course we’re back with Dumbledore and Voldemort. What doesn’t vary, though, is the general requirement to explore the capabilities of the systems involved, and in that you’re talking about the same sort of approach. Creating a Horcrux to defeat your enemies? Developing a virus that will wipe every computer on your target’s network once you’ve exfiltrated all their email, spreadsheets and a number of unreleased films? Pretty much the same process: a certain amount of education, knowledge, research, non-live testing, and then implementation.

One point about this metaphor is that we’re used to thinking of Harry Potter and his ilk as the good guys, the white hats, the nice ones. This is true enough if you think that most wannabe hackers go on to be “white hat” players, defending systems from attack from the Hogwarts first-years. (It’s also disconcerting if you take this approach, because a significant number of systems are hacked by people whose hacking skills are comparable with Neville Longbottom rather than Hermione’s.) When you think of Potter creating “Dumbledore’s Army” in “Order of the Phoenix”, just recast it as a password-protected online hacker forum where a bunch of script kiddies are trading methods to break into commercial systems.

When thinking about real-world hackers, it’s useful to consider that some people are very highly skilled – wizards, almost – and that their ability to use the hacker equivalent of the Imperius spell to subvert systems you thought you could rely on means you might not even realise that they’re inside. Certainly that was the experience recently of Dixons Carphone, which in June said that it had discovered that hackers had been inside its systems since the previous July. Eleven months? That’s pretty dramatic, and embarrassing for those who were meant to be guarding the perimeter, and the inside.

One could go on extending this metaphor: Azkaban prison is like any old prison. The Dementors are the plain old law enforcement, taking away your soul – well, computer – and leaving you as good as dead. House-elves are perhaps Internet of Things devices (which would explain why they occasionally cease obeying us altogether when a hacker comes along and gives them different instructions). Other suggestions of metaphor extensions – for dragons, goblins, and other members of that universe – are welcome.

And meanwhile, although there isn’t any discussion of Harry Potter and hacking in my book, there is plenty about hacking topics. See the links at the top.

Start Up: poisoning neural networks, the quiet smart home, will Article 13 pass?, Cook v Trump, and more

Superglue! Sticks human tissue! Why not in surgery too? Photo by Bill Keaggy on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Why the caged bird sings. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to stealthily poison neural network chips in the supply chain • The Register

Thomas Claburn:


“Hardware Trojans can be inserted into a device during manufacturing by an untrusted semiconductor foundry or through the integration of an untrusted third-party IP,” [Clemson University researchers Joseph Clements and Yingjie Lao] explain in their paper. “Furthermore, a foundry or even a designer may possibly be pressured by the government to maliciously manipulate the design for overseas products, which can then be weaponized.”

The purpose of such deception, the researchers explain, would be to introduce hidden functionality – a Trojan – in chip circuitry. The malicious code would direct a neural network to classify a selected input trigger in a specific way while remaining undetectable in test data.

“For example, an adversary in a position to profit from excessive or improper sale of specific pharmaceutics could inject hardware Trojans on a device for diagnosing patients using neural network models,” they suggest. “The attacker could cause the device to misdiagnose selected patients to gain additional profit.”

They claim they were able to prototype their scheme by altering only 0.03% of the neurons in one layer of a seven-layer convolutional neural network.

Clements and Lao say they believe adversarial training combined with hardware Trojan detection represent a promising approach to defending against their threat scenario. The adversarial training would increase the number of network network neurons that would have to be altered to inject malicious behavior, thereby making the Trojan large enough potentially to detect.


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Only 6% of smart speaker owners using them to control smart home devices • 9to5Mac

Ben Lovejoy:


A new survey of smart speaker owners found that only 6% of them are currently using the device to control smart home devices like lighting and heating.

Interestingly, even for HomePod – which is a very music-focused device – playing music was only the third most common use …

The IHS Markit study found that answering a question and checking the news or weather led the way, with discovering and controlling music in third place. Controlling other smart home devices is currently the least common use of a smart speaker.

However, the company told us this is expected to change rapidly.

“Controlling smart home devices by voice currently represents only a small fraction of total smart-speaker interactions,” said Blake Kozak, principal analyst, smart home, IHS Markit. “However, this category will continue to trend upward as more video-streaming devices come to rely on voice control, as security alarm systems adopt voice control to arm and disarm, and as more builders embed smart devices throughout new homes.”


Survey of 937 owners, so that’s 56 people doing this, across US, UK, Japan, Germany and Brazil. But yes, you’d expect this number to pitch up as the systems they’re linked to get smarter.
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Russian trolls weigh in on Roseanne Barr and Donald Trump Jr • WSJ

Georgia Wells, Rob Barry and Shelby Holliday:


Newly identified Russian trolls posted politically divisive messages on Twitter as recently as last month, hitting on a wide array of hot-button issues, according to a Journal analysis of recently revealed investigative documents and Twitter data.

The new tranche of about 1,100 account names, released Monday by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, brings the total number of publicly known Russian troll farm-operated accounts to more than 3,800. Last month, the Journal reported that the identities of many of the Russian accounts had not been publicly revealed.

The newly identified users posted more than 2.9 million tweets and retweets, bringing the total amount of Russian troll farm content on the platform to more than 8 million tweets and retweets, the Journal’s analysis found.


EIGHT MILLION. Is that a lot? I mean, there are lots of tweets every day. Twitter says it has 330 million monthly active users. And a lot of these accounts are pretty small beer – though they have had a couple of viral tweets. There’s influence, and then there’s “influence”. I wonder if the writers looked at each other when they got the 8m number and went “eh, sounds big enough for the newsdesk if we look outraged – say EIGHT MILLION in a loud voice.”
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On June 20, an EU committee will vote to crown Google and Facebook permanent lords of internet censorship • Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:


On June 20, the EU’s legislative committee will vote on the new Copyright directive, and decide whether it will include the controversial “Article 13” (automated censorship of anything an algorithm identifies as a copyright violation) and “Article 11” (no linking to news stories without paid permission from the site).

These proposals will make starting new internet companies effectively impossible — Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and the other US giants will be able to negotiate favourable rates and build out the infrastructure to comply with these proposals, but no one else will. The EU’s regional tech success stories — say, a successful Czech search competitor to Google — don’t have $60-100,000,000 lying around to build out their filters, and lack the leverage to extract favorable linking licenses from news sites.

If Articles 11 and 13 pass, American companies will be in charge of Europe’s conversations, deciding which photos and tweets and videos can be seen by the public, and who may speak.

The MEP Julia Reda has written up the state of play on the vote, and it’s very bad. Both left- and right-wing parties have backed this proposal, including (incredibly) the French Front National, whose Youtube channel was just deleted by a copyright filter of the sort they’re about to vote to universalise.


Wired says that “the EU’s bizarre war on memes is totally unwinnable“, and that sums it up. Copyright allows for “fair dealing” (aka “fair use”) in the UK, and other elements of this will fail because the EU supports “freedom of expression” as part of its human rights law.
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Superglue built planes, nukes and saved soldiers’ lives • War Is Boring

James Simpson:


Throughout the late 1930s and ’40s, aircraft switched from heavy glass canopies to acrylic. By virtue of being readily formed and having increased strength, acyrlic gave pilots better visibility than glass, which had to be mounted into opaque frames.

New jet airplanes also needed new canopies. Flying at higher speeds than propeller-driven planes, the jets’ cockpits needed to be stronger, tougher and more heat-resistant.

Still at Eastman Kodack and now based in Tennessee, Coover was once more on the case. The chemist headed a team that experimented with acylate polymers in the hope of finding an optically-clear plastic that could survive the stresses of jet flight.

Fred Joyner, one of Coover’s teammates, prepared a sample from the long list of compounds, and the team planned to measure its refractive index — the degree to which the material bends light. Joyner put ethyl cyanoacrylate between two $700 prisms called refractometers, noted down the result and then found that he couldn’t pull them apart.

The cyanoacrylate had bonded the two expensive glass prisms together and neither Joyner nor his superiors could figure out how to separate them. Coover then realized the importance of his discovery nine years prior. “I didn’t recognize, at first, that this was not a casting material we were working with but a unique new adhesive,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

His eyes now open, Coover took a sample of Joyner’s monomers and tried sticking together everything he could find in the lab. The glue was instant and strong — stronger than anything available at the time.


A reprint of a 2015 story, and it’s a great one. (Question: what are reprints in the web age?) Plus the struggle to get it used medically must have been exhausting.
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ZTE, US suppliers shares tank after Senate puts Trump reprieve in doubt • Reuters

Sijia Jiang:


The 85-10 bipartisan vote marked one of the few times the Republican-led Senate has veered from White House policy and came on the same day that US President Donald Trump threatened to impose a 10% tariff on $200bn of Chinese goods, escalating tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.

Trump is expected to lobby hard against the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and before it can become law the bill must be reconciled with one passed by the US House of Representatives that does not include the amendment.

Any compromise measure must then be passed by both chambers and signed into law by Trump, a series of hurdles that has Asia-based analysts predicting ZTE will get eventually get its reprieve.

“The NDAA is not really a reversal of the ZTE deal, but will in all probability prolong the ban-lifting process for ZTE,” said Nikhil Batra, a senior research manager with industry consultancy IDC.

ZTE’s Hong Kong-listed shares tumbled as much as 27% to HK$9.56, their lowest level in nearly two years, before ending the day down 25%.


Trump is going to be made to sweat for his promise to lift ZTE out of the grave. Plenty of road left in this tale.
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Apple chief Tim Cook condemns ‘inhumane’ US detention of children • Irish Times

Ciara O’Brien:


Speaking in Dublin on Tuesday, Mr Cook described the situation as “inhumane” and said Apple would be working with people in the US government to try to be a “constructive voice” on the issue.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the images and hear the sounds of the kids. Kids are the most vulnerable people in any society. I think that what’s happening is inhumane, it needs to stop,” Mr Cook told The Irish Times.

We’ve always felt everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. In this case, that’s not happening.”

The Apple chief executive said he had previously spoken with Mr Trump on a number of issues.

“I have spoken with him several times on several issues, and I have found him to listen,” he said. “I haven’t found that he will agree on all things.”

Among the issues Mr Cook has disagreed with the president on are the US decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, and the ongoing issue of the status of so-called Dreamers, who are undocumented people living in the US.

He said Apple would would take a constructive approach to try to deal with the current situation.

“I’m personally a big believer in the way to be a good citizen is to participate, is to try to advocate your point of view, not to just sit on the sideline and yell or complain,” he said.


He may have spoken to Trump several times, but if he thinks Trump is listening beyond the point where he walks out of the room, I think he’s wrong. Trump’s moves in tariffs against China demonstrate that.
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Augmented reality and virtual reality are on the VRge of growth • IDC


Worldwide shipments of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets were down 30.5% year over year, totaling 1.2m units in the first quarter of 2018 (1Q18), according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Augmented and Virtual Reality Headset Tracker. Much of the decline occurred due to the unbundling of screenless VR headsets during the quarter. For much of 2017, vendors bundled these headsets free with the purchase of a high-end smartphone, but that practice largely came to an end by the start of 2018. Despite a poor start to 2018, IDC anticipates the overall market will return to growth over the remainder of the year as more vendors target the commercial AR and VR markets and low-cost standalone VR headsets such as the Oculus Go make their way into stores. IDC forecasts the overall AR and VR headset market to grow to 8.9 million units in 2018, up 6% from the prior year. That growth will continue throughout the forecast period, reaching 65.9 million units by 2022.

“On the VR front, devices such as the Oculus Go seem promising not because Facebook has solved all the issues surrounding VR, but rather because they are helping to set customer expectations for VR headsets in the future,” said Jitesh Ubrani senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “Looking ahead, consumers can expect easier-to-use devices at lower price points. Combine that with a growing lineup of content from game makers, Hollywood studios, and even vocational training institutions, and we see a brighter future for the adoption of virtual reality.”

When it comes to augmented reality headsets, many consumers have already had a taste of the technology through screenless viewers such as the Star Wars: Jedi Challenges product from Lenovo. IDC anticipates these types of headsets will lead the market in shipment volumes in the near term.


So they’re saying the fall is really down to a different way of counting. I’m not so sure. VR either needs more computing power than people are willing to put into it, or better applications.
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China’s social media app WeChat demands more info from users • Radio Free Asia

Qiao Long:


China’s massively popular social media platform WeChat appears to have further tightened requirements for user registration, demanding access to all files and media content, and potentially giving the authorities access to everything on a user’s smartphone, RFA has learned.

A newly registered WeChat account resulted in a pop-up request on Thursday, calling for permission to access the device’s “photos, media library, and file content.”

Pressing “Deny” resulted in a further pop-up asking to turn on “storage space permissions.” Denying such permission resulted in the registration being aborted.

An internet service user in Guangzhou who has technical knowledge of WeChat’s functions told RFA that the app has evolved from a simple chat client to a form of spyware that monitors users’ behavior.

“If you use WeChat, there will be nothing private left on your phone,” Hu said. “Anything on your phone can be read by the app, which can even take control of the phone’s camera and microphone.”

“If the government wants to see what you are doing, or wants to hear what you are talking about, it can monitor you through WeChat, so it’s a very powerful tool,” he said.

Hu said users would be better off keeping at least one phone that didn’t have the app installed.


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Tech giants are starting to line up for a David-versus-Goliath privacy fight in California • AdWeek

Marty Swant:


The initiative is being headed up by a core group of three people, none of whom come from the engineering or venture-capital circles of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the very area that would be most affected by the passage of the proposal.

Rick Arney, a financial executive and one of the organizers, said the idea started two years ago after he and fellow organizers Alastair Mactaggart and Mary Ross couldn’t get traction in the state’s legislature. (Mactaggart comes from the real estate industry, while Ross spent her career in the CIA.)  

“It is not hard to find someone on a subway train that has been a victim of identity theft,” Arney said. “And when you tell people this will help stop that, they say, ‘Where do I sign up?’”  

The act targets larger businesses, those with annual gross revenue of $50m selling personal information of more than 100,000 consumers or devices, or having at least half of its annual revenue from selling personal information.

“We’ve tried to craft something that’s really common sense. This bill is something that moves the ball forward,” Arney said. “But I’m a businessperson. We’re not here to tear down companies.”

Some of the largest tech companies in the US—and the advertising trade groups that represent them—say the proposal goes much further than existing laws in the US or Europe. 

For example, while the EU allows people to opt out of exchanging data for offers, the California proposal would ban companies from giving preferential economic treatment—discounts or other promotions—to people who willingly provide their data. Some experts say the sweeping measure would also prevent companies like Facebook from having a paid model for those who don’t want their data collected if there’s still a free version for those who don’t mind targeted ads.


As you can imagine, there’s a ton of lobbying against this from the big companies.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: ref yesterday’s post, it is New Zealand, not France, that is the fifth member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing group. Thanks to Jonathan Beeston for the correction.

Start Up: DeepMind’s 3D mapper, Cohen’s BlackBerry cracked, smartwatches ticking up, and more

A flaw in Chromecast and Google Home could let companies zero in on your location via web pages. Photo by Marco Verch on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not to be sold separately. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

DeepMind AI learns to reconstruct scenes from images • Axios

Alison Snyder:


The system uses a pair of images of a virtual 3D scene taken from different angles to create a representation of the space. A separate “generation” network then predicts what the scene will look like from a different viewpoint it hasn’t seen before.

• After training the generative query network (GQN) on millions of images, it could use one image to determine the identity, position and color of objects as well as shadows and other aspects of perspective, the authors wrote.

• That ability to understand the scene’s structure is the “most fascinating” part of the study, wrote the University of Maryland’s Matthias Zwicker, who wasn’t involved in the research.

• The DeepMind researchers also tested the AI in a maze and reported the network can accurately predict a scene with only partial information.

• A virtual robotic arm could also be controlled by the GQN to reach a colored object in a scene.


Full paper at Science.
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Samsung’s cancelled Project Valley foldable phone revealed in pictures • SamMobile



As you can see in the images, Samsung’s early foldable phone was simply a regular smartphone with a second display panel attached to it with a folding hinge. It’s a rather unattractive design that would have seemed out of place at a time when the Korean giant launched the beautiful Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. It would certainly have garnered a lot of attention as no other manufacturer would have had something similar to offer at the time, but Samsung clearly wasn’t interested in releasing a foldable phone just to be the first on the market.

That’s not to say this early Project Valley prototype isn’t important, as it’s proof that Samsung has been serious about foldable devices for a long time. The company went as far as filing a patent for the user interface for the device, and it has recently been pretty upfront about its plans to release a foldable smartphone at some point in the near future.


I’d have called this a “folding” phone rather than a “foldable” phone. Somehow “foldable” to me suggests a single screen that somehow can be made smaller. But whatever – this looked horrible.
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Listen to children who’ve just been separated from their parents at the border • ProPublica

Ginger Thompson:


The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

Then a distraught but determined six-year-old Salvadoran girl pleads repeatedly for someone to call her aunt. Just one call, she begs anyone who will listen. She says she’s memorized the phone number, and at one point, rattles it off to a consular representative. “My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt,” she whimpers, “and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.”

An audio recording obtained by ProPublica adds real-life sounds of suffering to a contentious policy debate that has so far been short on input from those with the most at stake: immigrant children. More than 2,300 of them have been separated from their parents since April, when the Trump administration launched its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which calls for prosecuting all people who attempt to illegally enter the country and taking away the children they brought with them. More than 100 of those children are under the age of four. The children are initially held in warehouses, tents or big box stores that have been converted into Border Patrol detention facilities.


I recognise that this isn’t a political collection (generally), but this action by the present US administration – actions which predecessors including GW Bush and Obama considered and rejected – is indicative of a descent in public behaviour. A week ago I linked to an article which said “American collapse isn’t just economic and political – it’s moral and ethical, too“. This policy is indicative of that collapse.

I realise one wants to detain people who might be illegal immigrants at the border. But that doesn’t necessitate separating them from their children. That is inhuman.
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Google to fix location data leak in Google Home, Chromecast • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:


Craig Young, a researcher with security firm Tripwire, said he discovered an authentication weakness that leaks incredibly accurate location information about users of both the smart speaker and home assistant Google Home, and Chromecast, a small electronic device that makes it simple to stream TV shows, movies and games to a digital television or monitor.

Young said the attack works by asking the Google device for a list of nearby wireless networks and then sending that list to Google’s geolocation lookup services.

“An attacker can be completely remote as long as they can get the victim to open a link while connected to the same Wi-Fi or wired network as a Google Chromecast or Home device,” Young told KrebsOnSecurity. “The only real limitation is that the link needs to remain open for about a minute before the attacker has a location. The attack content could be contained within malicious advertisements or even a tweet.”

…When Young first reached out to Google in May about his findings, the company replied by closing his bug report with a “Status: Won’t Fix (Intended Behavior)” message. But after being contacted by KrebsOnSecurity, Google changed its tune, saying it planned to ship an update to address the privacy leak in both devices. Currently, that update is slated to be released in mid-July 2018.


The accuracy by this method is to within 10 metres – rather than the 2-3 miles that a typical IP address alone offers. If they get your location, plus an IP, plus some cookies, they’ve got your identity forever. “They” being advertisers who will want to pursue you on and off the net. Though how does Google Home “go” to a page, exactly?

Krebs suggests putting your IoT devices on a separate intranet from everything else. Quite a struggle.
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FBI recovers WhatsApp, Signal data stored on Michael Cohen’s BlackBerry • Ars Technica

Sean Gallagher:


In a letter to the presiding judge in the case against Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s long-time personal attorney, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York revealed today that it had obtained additional evidence for review—including a trove of messages and call logs from WhatsApp and Signal on one of two BlackBerry phones belonging to Cohen. The messages and call logs together constitute 731 pages of potential evidence. The FBI also recovered 16 pages of documents that had been shredded, but it has not yet been able to complete the extraction of data from the second phone.

The letter to Judge Kimba Wood stated that “the Government was advised that the FBI’s original electronic extraction of data from telephones did not capture content related to encrypted messaging applications, such as WhatsApp and Signal… The FBI has now obtained this material.”

This change is likely because of the way the messages are stored by the applications, not because the FBI had to break any sort of encryption on them. WhatsApp and Signal store their messages in encrypted databases on the device, so an initial dump of the phone would have only provided a cryptographic blob. The key is required to decrypt the contents of such a database, and there are tools readily available to access the WhatsApp database on a PC.

In a post to Twitter, attorney Michael Avenatti, who represents Stormy Daniels in her suit against Cohen over a nondisclosure agreement regarding her alleged sexual encounters with Donald Trump, crowed about the new evidence.


Manafort, Cohen – their opsec is revealed as pretty woeful. Part of what the FBI offered is “reconstructed shredded documents”. Oh dear.
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New wearables forecast: smartwatches to continue ascendance while wristbands face flat growth • IDC


“The shift in consumer preferences towards smartwatches has been in full swing these past few quarters and we expect that to continue in the coming years,” said Jitesh Ubrani senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “While Apple will undoubtedly lead in this category, what bears watching is how Google and its partners move forward. WearOS (formerly Android Wear) has been somewhat of a laggard recently and despite expected changes to the OS and the release of new silicon, we anticipate Android-based watches to be WearOS’ closest competitor due to the high amount of customization available to vendors and the lack of Google services in China.”

“Additionally, keep an eye on the other smartwatch platforms, including Fitbit’s Fitbit OS, Garmin’s Connected IQ, and Samsung’s Tizen,” said Ramon T. Llamas, research director for IDC’s Wearables team. “Fitbit’s Versa has had a warm reception in the market, and Garmin’s devices have had a steady presence for many quarters. Expect both companies to dive deeper into health and fitness while exploring new areas as well. Samsung, meanwhile, continues to make strides in the commercial space, including health care and wearable workflows.”

Smartwatches will evolve to encompass far more features and functionalities than they have today. “The smartwatches of 2022, even 2020, will make today’s smartwatches seem quaint,” added Llamas. “Health and fitness is a strong start, but when you include cellular connectivity, integration with other Internet of Things (IoT) devices and systems, and how smartwatches can enable greater efficiencies, the smartwatch market is heading for steady growth in the years to come.”


Forecasts the total market will grow 8.2% this year, to 124.9m units; smartwatches to be 44% of that (55m), of which Apple will be 20.2m.
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Self-described ‘classical liberal’ YouTubers join far-right European political party • Right Wing Watch

Jared Holt:


YouTuber pundit Carl Benjamin, known online as “Sargon of Akkad,” Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson and Scottish “Nazi pug” comedian Mark Meechan have announced that they are joining the right-wing populist and anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP), demolishing their claims that they are merely “classical liberals.”

Benjamin, Watson, and most recently Meechan, have become popular voices online for right-wing media audiences on YouTube in North America and Europe. For years, Benjamin and Watson have used their supposed “classical liberal” political orientation to present right-wing ideologies favorably and to incessantly bash caricatures of “social justice warrior” figures. Now these figures are joining an explicitly right-wing political party that has been rapidly crumbling since its political high point in 2015.

The first of the trio to join UKIP was Meechan, who is a Scottish comedian who was adopted by right-wing audiences when he stood trial for distributing a video in which a pug does a Nazi salute after Meechan prompts it with phrases like “Sieg Heil.” Meechan was supported in court by anti-Muslim activist Stephen “Tommy Robinson” Yaxley, but was ultimately fined £800 for the video.


I’m not sure if I would call UKIP “far right wing” – its members tend to be, though its policies are just very right wing. But these people joining it is hilarious: a case of the rats joining the sinking ship. UKIP is finished as a political force in the UK; it’s the dog that caught the car, since its only raison d’etre was to get the UK to leave the EU. Its vote collapsed in the council elections and general election last year.
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Shortcuts: a new vision for Siri and iOS automation • MacStories

Federico Viticci:


In their apps, third-party developers can embed messages and buttons (which they can design) to bring up the Siri UI to record a shortcut phrase. This means we’ll start seeing apps populate important screens or actions with suggestions and buttons to record a shortcut phrase. Moreover, in the Siri recording UI, developers can include a phrase suggestion, but it’s up to the user to decide what they want to record.

More importantly, users always have to create personalized shortcut phrases through direct interaction: apps cannot automatically fill the ‘My Shortcuts’ page in Settings with shortcuts and custom phrases. The user has to associate a custom phrase to a shortcut first.

The more I think about it, the more I see custom shortcut phrases as the next big step in making Siri a more personal assistant that is unique to each user. As would happen with an actual assistant, shortcut phrases allow users to form their own language over time, creating a personalized set of instructions that only their assistant can interpret and act upon. It’s the equivalent of jargon in a group of friends, but applied to Siri and app actions. The potential accessibility perks are tremendous too: Apple now enables everyone to create custom Siri phrases that can be however long or short they want; this removes the need to find actions nested in apps, multiple levels deep into their navigation stack.

Here’s why I believe Apple and the Workflow (now Shortcuts) team have been incredibly smart in reframing the concept of user automation around Siri and voice: when you think about it, custom phrases aren’t too dissimilar from keyboard shortcuts. However, spoken phrases are easier to remember – they don’t feel like dark magic to regular users who have never bothered with “automation” before, and, most of all, they are natively supported across the entire spectrum of Apple products, from iPhones and AirPods to HomePods and Watches.3

I strongly believe that personalized phrases are the first step towards changing the fundamental Siri experience, which is going to evolve into a personal command log – from one Siri to a million Siris, each uniquely tailored to the user who customized it.


There’s then a lot more about the Shortcuts app – what used to be the (third-party) Workflow app. You can turn any Workflow workflow into a Shortcut shortcut, if you follow me. It has taken quite a while, but Apple is getting iOS towards Android’s scriptability.
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Google to invest $550m in Chinese ecommerce giant • Venturebeat



Google will invest $550m in Chinese ecommerce powerhouse, part of the US internet giant’s efforts to expand its presence in fast-growing Asian markets and battle rivals including

The two companies described the investment as one piece of a broader partnership that will include the promotion of products on Google’s shopping service. This could help expand beyond its base in China and Southeast Asia and establish a meaningful presence in US and European markets.

Company officials said the agreement initially would not involve any major new Google initiatives in China, where the company’s main services are blocked over its refusal to censor search results in line with local laws.’s investors include Chinese social media powerhouse Tencent Holdings Ltd, the arch-rival of Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, and Walmart Inc.

Google is stepping up its investments across Asia, where a rapidly growing middle class and a lack of infrastructure in retail, finance and other areas have made it a battleground for US and Chinese internet giants. Google recently took a stake in Indonesian ride-hailing firm Go-Jek, and sources have told Reuters that it may also invest in Indian e-commerce upstart Flipkart.

Google declined to comment on the rumored Flipkart deal. The investment is being made by the operating unit of Google rather than one of parent company Alphabet’s investment vehicles.

Google will get 27.1m newly issued Class A ordinary shares as part of the deal. This will give them less than a 1% stake in JD, a spokesman for JD said.


Google seems like it still wants to work out some way to get a toehold in China. Will this give it access to shopping data? Seems unlikely.
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Adtech won’t fix ad fraud because it’s too lucrative, say specialists • Which-50

Joseph Brookes:


Adtech companies themselves are rarely accused of fraud. Instead, most of the fraud that Which-50 has investigated is committed by bad agents exploiting technical and process weaknesses found in the legitimate adtech ecosystem.

The rewards are significant. One former fraudster last year described to Which-50 how a small operation he worked in, with only three staff running a fairly unsophisticated grift, was raking in $US25,000 a week.

Our recent report about the MegaCast app serving tens of thousands of video ads in the background — irrespective of whether the app was engaged — operated at different scale altogether.

Another example: last year Forbes reported that a “… South Korean company, Kiniwini, hid an illegitimate ad clicking function inside 41 apps, most of which were games.” 

That scam was uncovered not by Google, which manages the Android app store, but by security company Checkpoint. As Forbes noted, the scam bypassed Google’s Bouncer technology which is designed to mitigate against fraud. This was because the offending capability was downloaded after installation.

Google also missed the MegaCast racket. It was actually discovered by Pixalate which revealed the details in a company blog.

Accusations of direct fraud by adtech companies are more rare, although not unheard of. Occasionally these come to light where companies are accused directly of fraud by their competitors — such as when Steelhouse and Criteo went at each other in the US courts in 2016.

The parties settled their arguments shortly before their respective lawyers were due to commence the legal discovery process, telling the market through a statement that once they had a better understanding of how each other’s business worked, they realised it was all just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Which-50 is not accusing either company of fraud. Rather we merely point out that each accused the other of exactly that before they settled.


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China’s Huawei rebuts Australian security concerns amid Sino-Canberra tensions • Reuters

Colin Packham:


Australia is likely to ban Huawei from participating in a 5G mobile telecommunications roll-out in the nation as it fears the company is de facto controlled by China and sensitive infrastructure will fall into the hands of Beijing, according to Australian media reports.

Huawei denies the allegations, and, in a move that threatens to draw Australian politicians into a public spat that will further stain relations with China, dismissed Canberra’s security concerns.

“Recent public commentary around China has referenced Huawei and its role in Australia and prompted some observations around security concerns,” Huawei Australia Chairman John Lord and board directors John Brumby and Lance Hockridge wrote in the unprecedented letter.

“Many of these comments are ill-informed and not based on facts.”

Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment and the No. 3 smartphone supplier, has already been virtually shut out from the giant US market because of national security concerns.

Australia has longstanding concerns about Huawei. In 2012 it banned the company from supplying its massive National Broadband Network, and in May Canberra committed millions of dollars to ensure Huawei did not build an internet cable between Australia and the Solomon Islands.


Notable how US and Australia, two of the “five eyes” countries (along with Canada, UK and France) which cooperate on spying, aren’t happy about letting Huawei in. Though the UK, with care, is.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified