Start Up: how Instagram works, a Trumpy troll unmasked, MasterMap mystery, India’s big solar bet, and more

Apple showed off its new iOS 12 apps – and then told you how not to use them. Photo by Mark Mathosian on Flickr.

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

How Instagram’s algorithm works • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:


Instagram relies on machine learning based on your past behavior to create a unique feed for everyone. Even if you follow the exact same accounts as someone else, you’ll get a personalized feed based on how you interact with those accounts.

Three main factors determine what you see in your Instagram feed:

• Interest: How much Instagram predicts you’ll care about a post, with higher ranking for what matters to you, determined by past behavior on similar content and potentially machine vision analyzing the actual content of the post.

• Recency: How recently the post was shared, with prioritization for timely posts over weeks-old ones.

• Relationship: How close you are to the person who shared it, with higher ranking for people you’ve interacted with a lot in the past on Instagram, such as by commenting on their posts or being tagged together in photos

…TechCrunch can’t verify the accuracy of these claims, but this is what Instagram’s team told us:

Instagram is not at this time considering an option to see the old reverse chronological feed because it doesn’t want to add more complexity (users might forget what feed they’re set to), but it is listening to users who dislike the algorithm.

• Instagram does not hide posts in the feed, and you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling.

• Feed ranking does not favor the photo or video format universally, but people’s feeds are tuned based on what kind of content they engage with, so if you never stop to watch videos you might see fewer of them.
Instagram’s feed doesn’t favor users who use Stories, Live, or other special features of the app.

• Instagram doesn’t downrank users for posting too frequently or for other specific behaviors, but it might swap in other content in between someone’s if they rapid-fire separate posts.

• Instagram doesn’t give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach.

• Shadowbanning is not a real thing, and Instagram says it doesn’t hide people’s content for posting too many hashtags or taking other actions.


Nice to know how your mind is being arranged without your knowledge.
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Apple’s Shortcuts app lets Siri do everything • Engadget

Edgar Alvarez:


Siri is getting smarter thanks to a new app called Shortcuts, which will let you build your own commands with any application. With the Tile app, for example, you can say “Hey Siri, I lost my keys,” and that will then alert the tiny gadget attached to your keys.

You can create more shortcuts for things such as “Surf time,” which will prompt Siri to look up the weather report before you head to the beach. Shortcuts is also going to allow Siri to make suggestions to you, like that you should call your mom or grandma on their birthday. While Google Assistant has had access to features like these for some time, it’s still great to see Apple finally letting Siri integrate deeper with third-party apps — even if you have to do some of the legwork yourself.

Siri Shortcuts seems to stem from Apple’s acquisition of Workflow in 2017, an app that focused on performing multiple tasks with a single tap. This is essentially Apple’s take on If This Then That (IFTTT), and Siri is going to be better because of it. Let’s hope so, at least.


This could be really interesting, and take Apple straight into voice control for lots of things. What I don’t get is how it would be useful if your phone is locked: presently you have to unlock it to do anything app-related with Siri. Or perhaps an unlocked phone is the starting point.
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Apple unveils ways to help limit iPhone usage • WSJ

Tripp Mickle:


Apple on Monday unveiled new controls to help people curb the amount of time they spend on iPhones and iPads, as well as allow parents to remotely track and limit their children’s use of those devices—a response to growing societal concern that adults and children are too focused on phones.

The company said a new app it will release in September called “Screen Time” will provide users with weekly reports of the apps they use and allow them to set time limits for their use of those apps. Parents will be able to use the system to remotely monitor the apps their children use and limit their time on devices.


So both Apple and Google are trying to get us to use our phones less, or feel guilty about it. Will it work, though? Lots though that seems good – even overdue: better notification control, better parental controls, and will work on phones right back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. That’s a lot of phones.
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Wireless system can power devices inside the body • MIT News

Anne Trafton:


MIT researchers, working with scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have developed a new way to power and communicate with devices implanted deep within the human body. Such devices could be used to deliver drugs, monitor conditions inside the body, or treat disease by stimulating the brain with electricity or light.

The implants are powered by radio frequency waves, which can safely pass through human tissues. In tests in animals, the researchers showed that the waves can power devices located 10 centimeters deep in tissue, from a distance of 1 meter.

“Even though these tiny implantable devices have no batteries, we can now communicate with them from a distance outside the body. This opens up entirely new types of medical applications,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor in MIT’s Media Lab and a senior author of the paper, which will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) conference in August.

Because they do not require a battery, the devices can be tiny. In this study, the researchers tested a prototype about the size of a grain of rice, but they anticipate that it could be made even smaller.


It’s a little like RFID (where the radio frequency makes the aerial “ring”, generating power) but slightly more sophisticated. Though after reading John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood, about Theranos, you find that any claim of medical advance wants peer review.
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Trump’s loudest anti-Muslim Twitter troll is a shady vegan married to an (ousted) WWE exec• Huffington Post

Luke O’Brien:


She was supposed to be a Russian bot. That seemed like the best explanation for @AmyMek. No normal person could be so prolific and prejudiced.

For five years, the mysterious Twitter account ― which has more than 200,000 followers, including Sean Hannity, Roseanne Barr and the personal account of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and has earned endorsements from Donald Trump and Michael Flynn ― has tirelessly spewed far-right propaganda and, above all, Islamophobia. Around 25 tweets a day, sometimes more, the majority of them designed to stoke hatred of Muslims.

The bigotry was garden-variety Islamophobia: memes about Sharia executions and child rape, genital mutilation and Muslims torturing and butchering various life forms while dusky columns of Saracens, every one of them a potential jihadist, march into Western lands bent on pillage. What made @AmyMek special was her industriousness. She never took a break.

“She’s a major cog in the Islamophobia machine,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy and civil rights organization that @AmyMek often attacks.

Her Twitter timeline was one long screed that reflected the collective id of the Make America Great Again movement. Tea party rage, evangelical hokum and white supremacy ― it was all there. In sufficient volume, this kind of hate can now turn any no-account right-winger into a star on social media. And it worked for @AmyMek.

But who was she?


O’Brien put together the few clues that Amy Jane Mekelburg left in her Twitter stream, and put them together. (One suspects that he got some tipoffs, though he manages to obscure where they came from. But a subsequent statement from Mekelburg’s family suggest they’ve known for a while, and disapprove of her actions strongly.) For that, he was accused of “stalking” by right-wing idiots who like to make stuff up.

More generally, this shows how social media amplifies people not because they’re trustworthy, but because they’re polarising. She has over 220,000 followers.

Notably, though, she has hardly tweeted in the past couple of days.
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AT&T and Verizon want to run big ad-tracking networks to rival Facebook • The Verge

Nilay Patel:


AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson spoke at the Code Conference today, where he took issue with the government’s antitrust lawsuit blocking its purchase of Time Warner. Then he laid out exactly why he wants to buy it: to sell ads to the customers it already tracks.


[Time Warner’s] Turner has an amazing inventory of advertising that they just kind of sell broadly. It’s not a very targeted advertising approach. AT&T has an amazing amount of data — customer data for 40 million pay TV subscribers in North and South America, 130 million mobile subscribers, 16 million broadband subscribers. We have really great customer insight on what kind of shows and media content they’re viewing, where they are, all kinds of information on the consumer. Can you pair a very formidable ad inventory with a very formidable amount of data and information on the customer — viewership data and all kinds of other information — and can you create something unique just from a straight advertising platform and change how you’re monetizing content?


To sum that up, AT&T’s plan is to use the data it tracks and collects about customers on its networks — including location data and all the media they consume over those networks — to serve targeted ads for high prices against Time Warner content.


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What’s happening with MasterMap and the Geospatial Commission? • Owen Boswarva

Boswarva notes that a Budget promise to establish “by May 2018” how to open MasterMap, the UK mapping agency’s key product, hasn’t been met:


MasterMap is free to use for public authorities under a central funding agreement, but commercial terms apply for use by businesses, charities and the general public. A corporate licence for full coverage of the Topography Layer alone is £4,581,000 per year, so it’s easy to see why open data campaigners think MasterMap has untapped potential for re-use in the wider national interest.

In principle releasing MasterMap as open data should be a straightforward, if bold, economic decision. The challenge is mostly in the implementation.

Back in 2010 a previous Government recognised the need for a base layer of freely re-usable national geospatial infrastructure, and we got OS OpenData – an adaptable toolkit of mapping products that radically expanded the accessibility of geographic information in Britain.

Today, with increasingly detailed sources of geographic data coming online from BIM, citizen science, urban sensor networks, and earth observation, that demand has shifted to a more granular level. We need open MasterMap, and the Topography Layer in particular, to function as the new collaborative base layer for location intelligence in Britain.

By now Cabinet Office must have realised there’s no way to effectively ring-fence the benefits for small businesses. SMEs operate within supply chains, and exploiting MasterMap across the full range of potential applications on the web requires frictionless sharing of data. But opening MasterMap will still benefit small businesses “in particular”, because the costs associated with the current licensing model are a barrier to entry that discourages small businesses much more than large corporates.

Releasing MasterMap as open data will have a significant secondary benefit: the potential to unlock thousands of additional spatial datasets, held by local authorities and other public bodies, that cannot be published as open data now because they are derived from closed MasterMap data.


This would be a huge win for free data in the UK. We pay the government to collect it; why don’t we get to use it for free?
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Some quick thoughts on the public discussion regarding facial recognition and Amazon Rekognition this past week • AWS News Blog

Matt Wood is general manager of AI at Amazon Web Services:


Amazon Rekognition is a service we announced in 2016. It makes use of new technologies – such as deep learning – and puts them in the hands of developers in an easy-to-use, low-cost way. Since then, we have seen customers use the image and video analysis capabilities of Amazon Rekognition in ways that materially benefit both society (e.g. preventing human trafficking, inhibiting child exploitation, reuniting missing children with their families, and building educational apps for children), and organizations (enhancing security through multi-factor authentication, finding images more easily, or preventing package theft). Amazon Web Services (AWS) is not the only provider of services like these, and we remain excited about how image and video analysis can be a driver for good in the world, including in the public sector and law enforcement.

There have always been and will always be risks with new technology capabilities. Each organization choosing to employ technology must act responsibly or risk legal penalties and public condemnation. AWS takes its responsibilities seriously. But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future. The world would be a very different place if we had restricted people from buying computers because it was possible to use that computer to do harm.


That’s true, but there were plenty of restrictions on who you could sell computers to – Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, China, and so on. The concerns over Rekognition are about who gets to use it; exactly like those computer export restrictions.
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How Apple programmer Sal Soghoian got apps talking to each other • WIRED


In 2014, after Apple announced a ton of new tools for apps to work together in iOS 8, [David] Barnard and [Justin] Youens [both iOS developers outside Apple] started brainstorming ways these tools could make their app better. Their plan was to find a way to run x-callback-urls in succession to create script-like actions. They had effectively dreamed up Automator for iOS, but their fear of being burned again by Apple’s often convoluted and murky app approval process held them back from following through.

Looking back, Barnard says that was a strategic blunder.

The team behind Workflow didn’t share those fears. In the winter of 2014, its app debuted on the App Store. It looked a lot like what you’d imagine Automator for iOS would be—to create a workflow, you’d select the actions you want, then drag and drop them together in a way that brought your tasks to completion. You could do things like send an ETA to a contact based on your current location, download all the pictures on a webpage, or quickly post photos to Instagram with all your favorite hashtags already included. If there was a task on your phone that took too much time and mental energy to do over and over again, there was a good chance you could try to automate it using Workflow. It even tied pieces together with x-callback-url.

Just over two years after the app’s debut, Apple acquired Workflow and its team for an undisclosed amount of money. Apple hasn’t been clear on why it bought Workflow, but Greg Pierce thinks it’s promising for the future of automation. “Maybe we’ll see something [in 2018] that gives people a platform to do more professional work,” he says.


This article appeared before the WWDC announcements. Though it has Soghoian in the headline, he isn’t a hero of iOS, and I personally have never found Automator on the Mac useful – I write in Applescript. But it was he who kept the flame of Applescript alive in Apple for years, and that is crucial.
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India approves massive new 5,000 megawatt solar farm • Climate Action Programme


The Indian Government has given planning permission to a huge new solar project which is set to become one of the largest in the world.

The approval for a 5,000 megawatt (MW) solar farm in the state of Gujarat was announced earlier this month by the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy.

The first 1,000MW stage of the project will be put out to tender soon.

Once complete the project near the town of Dholera will be the largest solar farm in India, stretching over 11,000 hectares and eclipsing the 2,255 MW Bhadla solar park currently under development in Rajasthan.

Saudi Arabia recently signed an initial deal to build a larger 200 GW solar farm, the first stage of which will be 7,200 MW.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, said on Twitter that the Dholera project is estimated to attract 25,000 crore rupees ($3.7bn), and employ 20,000 people.


11,000 hectares is about 42 square miles.
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Conspiracy theories are eating this alt right-friendly site from the inside • Daily Beast

Kelly Weill:


Last week, Sanduja set off a firestorm on the [Gab] site, after he perceived Jared Wyand (an alt-righter who was kicked off Twitter, ostensibly for claiming that Star Wars promotes “white genocide”) to to be threatening him.

“You have a false sense of security that leads to a leaky mouth in a room full of highly capable men who have their backs to the walls,” Wyand wrote Sanduja on Gab. “That’s a very large mistake but don’t let it stop you. 😉”

Sanduja replied that he was reporting the message to law enforcement.

“Obviously I saw that as a threat because it was clearly coded and was clearly designed to intimidate and suppress my right to speech,” he told The Daily Beast. “I have to look out for my own personal safety because to be frank with you, my job is very dangerous. The things I do are very dangerous. The reality that is I am trying to liberate people around the world from tyranny, essentially, speech censorship, and our team faces a lot death threats.”

Over the past week on Gab, Sanduja has shared a number of anti-Islamic posts, including one describing a rise in European babies named Muhammed as a “Jihad of the womb.”

Sanduja declined to describe how many reports Gab has made to law enforcement (he previously stated that he was reporting the person who sent him a drawing of a noose), but said that Gab had complied with law enforcement investigations in the past.

A strain of hard-right Gab users have bashed management for the reports to police, as well as Sanduja for announcing that he had blocked more than 5,000 Gab users. (To do so is anti-free speech, to hear this crowd tell it.) But Torba claims some of the police reports are false flags.


Oh, by the way, Utsav Sanduja is chief operating officer of Gab. They seem like a nice bunch, don’t they? No. (If you read on, it’s clear there’s an utterly paranoid streak to their thinking which requires them to see infiltration and enemies in everything.) Journalists who report on this stuff put me in mind of the workers sent to clear out fatbergs from sewers: I’m glad someone does it, and I’m thankful it’s not me.
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Fake Fortnite APKs are out there, don’t be tricked into downloading one • Android Police

Richard Gao:


Given Fortnite’s current hotness, we understand if you’ve been scouring the webs for an APK to download onto your phone. After all, Epic Games said that Fortnite would be making its way to Android this summer, and it’s basically summer at this point. But be forewarned: Fortnite is not out on Android yet, and anything you see claiming to be a Fortnite APK is a scam.

A Google search will reveal more than a few Fortnite Android scams out there, and they’re all over YouTube as well. Some, like the one you see above, have actually purchased advertisement space on YouTube to further deceive people. Most of them can be easily spotted from their broken English and generally crappy web design, but it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone who isn’t a complete idiot to make something more convincing.


The fake apps steal Fortnite accounts. Well, of course. The fake games are a side effect of the delay between the iOS release and the Android release, and that of course is because of the difference in the number of devices to be supported. (Side note: one of the kids won a round of 1 v 99 and so has been elected this household’s tribute. May the odds be ever in their favour.)
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3 thoughts on “Start Up: how Instagram works, a Trumpy troll unmasked, MasterMap mystery, India’s big solar bet, and more

  1. “Nice to know how your mind is being arranged without your knowledge.”

    Any curation does that though. For some reason “social” feeds seem more iffy than “news” feeds, but newspapers, TV, radios have been curating news for decades. I’m really curious if the backlash is because social does indeed a worse job, or because it is more efficient, or because it is easier to spot. Fox News anyone ?

    • The point about social media curation is that it narrowly creates an echo chamber, whereas curation of newspapers and TV is broad, and the echo chamber is intended to be the nation talking to itself, which is rather broader than an Instagram or Facebook feed designed to maximise your time spent, rather than to maximise your knowledge about world events. I’m amazed you can’t see that crucial difference. Even with Fox News the bubble is a lot bigger than on Facebook, even if the reliability is questionable.

      • You think old media isn’t also about maximizing time spent ? The boss of the biggest French TV station got into trouble a few years ago for saying that his job is to “sell brain-time”. A rare attack of candor. I’m sure some media see their calling as educational; but most see it as financial, and that means feeding users ads and furthering their owners’ other businesses.

        And I’m not sure how the size of the audience improves the validity and legitimacy of its curation. In the US, that would make creationism valid and gun control invalid ? But not in Europe ?

        I’m seeing a direct line from hate pamphlets to hate radio to hate TV to hate speech on the Internet (ditto for frivolous, religious, xx-denier,… stuff). I think the newness of the medium makes it feel more threatening in general, and excites old-media actors not only because of the content, but also because they see it as a lever to get some audience back (see NYT subscriptions). But the issue is deeper and multifaceted; nazism and flaming rivers happened w/o the Internet. I sometimes fear the focus on social is the same type of mistake as the outrage at inflammatory remarks: succumbing to misdirection.

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